The impact of disposable cups on the environment

Disposable coffee cups impact on the environment by creating more garbage in landfill, adding plastic pollution to oceans and using up resources such as paper. The US uses around 108 billion disposable cups per year and worldwide it is estimated that 500 billion are discarded to landfill each year.

Swapping disposable coffee cups to reusable is one way to reduce their environmental impact.

Let’s explore disposable cups environmental impact.  I’ve been wondering what really happens to disposable cups when we throw them out?  I will discuss if they are really bad for the environment, what happens to them when we throw them out and what we can use instead.

How many disposable cups we use

After doing some research it appears that coffee cups are the second biggest contributor to garbage second only to plastic bottles. The US uses around 108 billion cups per year. Worldwide it is estimated that 500 billion disposable cups are discarded to landfill each year.

That is equal to one million cups every minute. And that is just thinking about coffee cups.  If we take into consideration the amount of plastic cups we use for water at offices, kids parties, Styrofoam cups and other single use plastics, there is a lot heading to landfill that has become part of everyday life.

Because of our busy lives and the explosion of the cafe culture around the world more and more cups are being thrown out.  Many of us don’t have time to sit down in our local cafe and enjoy a leisurely coffee at our own pace. If you have young kids like me, you will understand how tricky it is to sit down and finish a whole coffee without whining or cutlery being spread throughout the cafe.

It’s only recently that this habit of grabbing a takeaway coffee is being recognised as having a huge impact on our environment.

Think reusable coffee cups

What happens to our disposable cups when we throw them out

We can consider that depending on where these disposable coffee cups are thrown out they can end up in any number of places.  If they are disposed of at home or whilst out and about in a normal bin they generally will end up in landfill.

If you find a recyclable coffee cup and place it in the recycling bin they may end up heading to a recycling factory and hopefully turned into something else useful.

The unfortunate thing about takeaway coffee cups is that hardly any of them are truely recyclable.  Virtually all contain a plastic coating on the inside of the cup that makes it incredibly difficult to process and seperate.

There are very few facilities in Australia that are able to recycle these cups. Even if people think they are doing the right thing and placing them in the recycling bins, they can often end up contaminating other recycling because most council facilities are unable to process them.  You need to check with your local council to see if your area is able to recycle these cups from your recycling bins.

What to use instead of disposable cups

The best thing to do is to enjoy your coffee at your cafe.  I wish I had more time to sit and enjoy a coffee. I am really lucky today as my amazing husband has taken the kids for an hour or so to give me time to write this blog post.  I’ll show you a pic of the coffee I am enjoying below (soon). But to be honest most of the time I am rushing and need to grab a takeaway.

Cafes are my new favorite hangout

The other option that I had been using was a reusable coffee cup.  There are so many brands around now as we are starting to become more conscious of the impact we are having on our environment.

One of my friends had bought me a reusable cup in my favorite color (blue) which I had been using ever since my baby was born.  The bad news is I knocked it off a kitchen bench and broke it a couple of month ago.

Like many people am now in the market for another reusable cup.  There are heaps of options, made from clay, toughened glass, plastic and even bamboo.  I haven’t worked out which one is best for me yet but I will be adding a post when I finally get around to choosing one.

The thing that I always questioned was are they really better for the environment? The answer so far as I can figure out is yes.  Even one made from plastic (that is recyclable) only needs to be used 17 times before it has been worth it. For those like me who buy a coffee almost everyday that is not even 3 weeks of use and the environment is better off.

What cafes can do to reduce disposable cup use

Many cafes I visit now offer a discounted coffee for bringing a re-usable cup, others have gone so far as to only offer reusable cups.  That means bring your own or purchase one of theirs. I appreciate this approach and admire their leadership. It is admirable because they must know they will lose some customers but value the environment above all of this.

I think we can also think about our workplaces, kids parties and any other event we attend that use disposable plastic cups.  It may be as simple as using cups that can be washed. I know that plastic cups would be used over and over again in my home (with less chance of getting smashed than glass).

If you are having a kids party maybe think about using cups that can be washed and used again. I know washing dishes isn’t the best task but I know I would feel much better about that than picking up 15 plastic cups and throwing them in the garbage.  

Disposable cup bigger picture

Some countries across the world are taking the lead when it comes to recycling and climate change.  France are banning single use plastics, Germany has the Frieburg cup which a reusable cup and can be used at multiple outlets.

Customers give a small deposit (around $1) which gets refunded when they return the cup. It can be used up to 400 times and solves the problem of expecting everyone to bring their own reusable cup.

I think disposable cups are really just the starting point for our journey towards a more sustainable culture.  I know I am starting to consider all of the items that I have been buying out of habit and starting to rethink my choices.  From toothbrushes, straws, cups and shopping bags.

These are all great starting points towards a low or no waste society. I am not planning to wait around any longer before making changes that are relatively easy that so many amazing people are already making.

Disposable cup environmental impact – Summary

There is a lot to be concerned about when we look at how many disposable cups are being thrown out.  I have been talking mostly about coffee cups but there are lots of plastic products that are only being used short term and then ending up in landfill or polluting the oceans.

If we all take more care with our choices and encourage our local cafes and councils to consider the impact they are having on the environment. It is a big task but I know that I am going to do my best to be more conscious about the choices I make, I hope this blog post has helped inspire you.