Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

KaiFebruary 26, 2020

Why it’s time to break up with the disposable cup

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

New Zealanders throw away 295 million single-use cups per year. Alice Neville ponders our obsession with takeaway culture, and looks at what’s needed for consumers to change their behaviour. 

How many commuters did you see clutching single-use takeaway coffee cups on your way to work this morning? Or how many empty ones are strewn about the desks in your office right now?

I’d wager a whole lot, though hopefully a fraction fewer than there would have been 10 years ago. Mike Murphy, managing director of Auckland roastery Kōkako Organic Coffee, predicts they’ll soon be a relic. “Probably in the future, carrying a takeaway cup might be viewed kind of like walking down the street with a cigarette,” he says.

With the Packaging Forum estimating that New Zealanders get through a staggering 295 million disposable cups a year, we’ve got a way to go, however. The vast majority of disposable coffee cups used in New Zealand can’t be recycled – yes, they’re made of paper, but in order to hold liquid, they’re coated in plastic. That means they go straight to landfill. Many cafes use compostable cups, but they need to be sent to a special commercial composting facility to actually break down. Most don’t make it there, instead ending up in – you guessed it – landfill.

Mike Murphy of Kōkako at Purosa Estate in Papua New Guinea (Photo: Josh Griggs)

Whence does our fondness for sipping out of a little hole in the plastic lid of a plastic-lined paper cup come? The first paper cups were used in imperial China, back in the 2nd century BC or thereabouts, to serve tea. The modern paper cup made an appearance in the early 20th century as a response to public health concerns around sharing cups at water fountains and the like. 

While Europe’s coffee culture has always been based on sitting down at a table or standing at the bar and downing an espresso, those upstart Americans pioneered to-go coffee in the 1960s. It rose up through Greek-owned New York coffee carts (the now famous Amphora cup – “We are happy to serve you” – was designed with them in mind in 1963), and then through chains like 7-Eleven, which capitalised on the commuter culture that emerged from the suburbanisation of America. 

Then came Starbucks and the rise of the the upwardly mobile young professional, for whom takeaway coffee became a status symbol, an indication of how damned busy and in-demand you were. In New Zealand, we developed our own coffee culture in the 1980s, and takeaway cups came with it. We took to them like ducks to water, chugging back those flat whites as we wandered down Cuba St or whizzed up Ponsonby Rd. Wellington coffee pioneer Jeff Kennedy, who founded Caffe L’affare in 1990, says takeaway coffees have been a part of it since the beginning, though cups were initially the even-worse-for-the-environment polystyrene. 

Coffee cups based on the original Amphora design at a New York coffee cart in 2013 (Photo: Getty Images)

For coffee roasters, takeaway cups have been both a revenue stream and a marketing tool. They buy cups printed with their logo from packaging companies, then on-sell to cafes that use their beans. Having your name printed on something that can end up almost anywhere has got to be good for business, right?

But in recent times, as the modern world’s love of convenience has come back to bite us in the arse in many ways, awareness of the waste created by our takeaway coffee habit has increased. In the past few years, reusable coffee cups have become mainstream – compare that to 15 years ago, when I was a barista, and the only people BYOing cups were considered eccentric at best, downright annoying at worst. 

“For years it was quirky people who did it,” agrees Kennedy. “You know, tree huggers, people who were thinking about the planet before others.”

But as with much of life, it turns out the quirky ones were in fact ahead of their time. They could see that using something for 10 minutes and then throwing it away, day after day after day, was lazy, wasteful and, well, just pretty dumb. Thankfully, the rest of us are catching on, and you don’t need to be an oddball clutching a giant mug to do so (though it’s totally cool if you are – ceramics are very on trend, after all).

Al Keating of Coffee Supreme (Photo: Coffee Supreme website)

Attitudes have certainly changed, confirms Al Keating, CEO of Coffee Supreme. “I used to have open packets of paper cups rolling around in my car; I’d plant seedlings in them. We’d have mountains of them. Now we’re really conscious of opening a new packet.”

From March 2019, Supreme began tracking the takeaway habits of customers at several of its New Zealand and Australian cafes, and found 99% were still opting for disposable cups. However, the proportion bringing a reusable cup rose by 5% from March to July, suggesting change is happening, but it’s slow. The company is aiming to increase that proportion by another 30%.

“We’ve set some pretty lofty goals around getting paper cup sales down in a way that is not super detrimental to our revenue,” says Keating. “It’s something we want to work towards and we’re encouraging it, but it has been a pretty big revenue stream over the years, so it’s a bit bittersweet.”

Coffee Supreme discourages its own staff from using disposable cups, says Keating, issuing them instead with reusable cups from KeepCup, the Australian company it’s had a long partnership with. Keating believes the last time he used a disposable cup was nine months ago. 

KeepCup founder Abigail Forsyth (Photo: Supplied/RNZ)

KeepCup was founded in 2007 by siblings Abigail and Jamie Forsyth, who had run a cafe in Melbourne since 1998 and became increasingly concerned about the waste created by disposable takeaway cups. “Big businesses have done an excellent job of making us feel that it’s aspirational behaviour,” says Abigail Forsyth of the takeaway coffee culture. “We’ve been sold an idea that that’s a behaviour that people want to aspire to – they’re busy, time-poor, so they turn to convenience.”

Their cups are now used in more than 65 countries around the world and favoured by coffee aficionados for their simple, sleek design. Kennedy, who now runs Wellington’s Prefab cafe with his partner Bridget Dunn, reckons around 20% of takeaway customers BYO cups. He’s noticed an increasing desire for reusable cups to look great as well as doing their job. “I think design is taking over from pure functionality – people seem to be really concerned about how cool the cup is. It’s like ‘I love my cup and it’s part of me’, like a cell phone or, dare I say it, a vape.”

Both Supreme and Kōkako sell KeepCups, and Murphy says demand has increased to the extent that he’s gone from buying cartons of them to pallets over the past few years. Both Murphy and Keating say sales have flattened off in recent months as we’ve reached “peak KeepCup” – you can buy a wide range of reusable coffee cups from a wide range of stores, including supermarkets. “They’re just more mainstream now,” says Murphy. “And that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t be exclusive to cafes and the coffee sector.”

Kōkako is soon to open its new flagship cafe at Commercial Bay, downtown Auckland’s long-awaited retail and hospitality precinct, and Murphy says he and the team have agonised about what to do about disposable cups. There will be a reusable cup-washing station for customers, so there’s no excuse for grabbing a disposable one because your keep cup is grubby with the remnants of yesterday’s latte. 

“We’ve obsessed over it,” he says. “You see people making bold statements about going totally takeaway cup free, which I really respect, but we’re also mindful that we’re paying a pretty big rent and we don’t want to alienate people on day one.”

Again Again is a reusable cup scheme (Photo: Supplied)

A number of New Zealand cafes have got rid of disposable cups entirely, a list of which can be found at the UYO (use your own) website. Many have “boomerang cup” schemes or are part of the Again Again network, where cafes share a pool of reusable cups that customers pay a refundable bond for. Others, while not banning the cups entirely, won’t serve them to diners who are sitting in (which made one customer of Auckland cafe Buoy very angry).

“We’ve gone with the idea of encouraging reusable cups and crockery and essentially looking at a takeaway cup as a last resort,” says Murphy, giving the example of “a tourist who’s just flown in from LA and they’re about to get on a boat to Waiheke”. 

“We’ve got to look after those people, we don’t want to alienate them or make them feel stink. But we’ll be very vocal about educating people on it, and it’s likely that we’ll put a small surcharge on a takeaway cup, mainly so we can really reward people who have a keep cup or dine in with us.” 

Keating says Supreme cafes already charge extra for disposable takeaway cups, and will continue to offer them until customers no longer demand it. “Ultimately the power lies with the consumer,” he says. “When consumers say, ‘hey, you know what, we won’t buy coffee in paper cups,’ then we’ll stop selling coffee in paper cups, but at the moment we’d just piss our customers off and they’d buy from somewhere else.”

He acknowledges the company’s role, however. “We’re a big part of the problem because we on-sell single-use paper cups, and they’re compostable but they’re not easy to compost.”

Compostable cups going into a designated bin that will ensure they actually get to the correct facility (Photo: Supplied)

Keating thinks people need to value the experience of drinking coffee more, and realise it’s much more pleasant drinking coffee out of a ceramic cup than something throwaway anyway. He compares it to craft beer. “Drinking beer out of a paper cup’s a pretty stink experience – it tastes terrible – but people tolerate coffee in a paper cup.

“The problem is convenience and entitlement, thinking you have a right to these things,” adds Keating. “Why not just sit down and enjoy the coffee?”

He admits there are times when coffee on the go is handy, however. “Yes, I drink coffee in the car sometimes, I take coffee to my kids’ Saturday morning sport and I stand on the sideline with a coffee, but it’s not difficult to get something that’s not disposable.”

Murphy agrees consumer behaviour needs to change. “It’s about creating an awareness of the full life cycle of the cup and the wastefulness of that transaction. It’s disincentivising – you’re saying the 10- to 15-minute activity of using this cup is not a great idea, as it’s not just that short amount of time, it’s about the cost of the manufacturing the cup, getting it to New Zealand. Someone has to deal with that cup before and after the consumer.”

He also points out it’s an issue that reaches far wider than the coffee industry. “It’s bigger than coffee. Going to get sushi and seeing everyone eating off the plastic tray and putting it in the bin. That’s just crazy, it took like 10 minutes to eat the sushi.”

On that note, there is of course a whole world of coffee out there beyond the “specialty” scene. Are mass-market coffee retailers aware of the issue? Night n’ Day convenience stores have been offering free coffees to anyone who brings their own cup throughout the month of February, and McDonald’s offers a 50c discount to people who BYO cups. Z petrol stations also offer a 50c discount for BYO cups, and recently sold their 100,000th coffee in a reusable cup, says a spokesperson. Late last year Z Espress-branded KeepCups were introduced, and more than 4000 have sold so far. 

BP’s Wild Bean Cafes offer a 50c discount to customers who bring a Wild Bean Cafe reusable mug, or a 5% discount for any other reusable cup. Columbus Coffee, meanwhile, is partnering with Sustainable Coastlines to launch an initiative that will offer customers an incentive to use their own cup while giving back to the environment, but wouldn’t yet reveal details. 

Research has suggested incentive schemes don’t actually work particularly well to discourage people who are dead-set on a disposable cup, however. So what other options are there? In 2018, British MPs called for the introduction of a “latte levy”, a 25p charge on coffees served in single-use cups, and unless a sustainable recycling system could be set up, proposed banning them by 2023. The plans were dropped after lobbying by chain Costa Coffee, according to the Independent. Ireland, on the other hand, has committed to introducing a €0.25 “latte levy” in 2021, and the Californian city of Berkeley has already done so.

As for Aotearoa, there are no plans specifically relating to coffee cups at this stage. In December last year, the government announced that the second phase of its plan to tackle plastic waste would focus on hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene – which would catch the old-school foam cups, but cafes haven’t used them for years. 

Keating of Coffee Supreme believes it may take legislation for consumers to truly change their ways – look at the plastic bag ban, after all – but he also thinks a tax on paper cups that funded facilities to commercially compost them could be a good idea.

“We’ve got to normalise it,” says Murphy. “Make it as normal as carrying a tote bag for your groceries at the supermarket.” 

Everyone’s on board with that, after all – because we have to be. Whether measures short of a ban can truly make an impact when it comes to our morning caffeine hit, however, remains to be seen.

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