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Paper cups are the great evil of takeaway coffee. Few can be recycled and as a result billions and billions of them are dumped into landfill every year. But what are alternatives? Coffee Universe writer Emma Christie investigates.

If you love takeaway coffee but hate killing the planet, it´s time to invest in a reusable cup. But as with most things in the ever-evolving coffee universe, the multitude of available options gives rise to a multitude of questions. What material is best? Will it impact the flavour? Will it leak? Is it easy to fit the lid? Is it easy to break? Who the hell is going to clean it afterwards?

Let´s start by looking at the range of materials used for reusable cups.

Option 1 – Plastic

Plastic is great for three main reasons – it´s lightweight, it´s hard to break and it´s easy to clean. Downsides – some people think plastic taints the flavour. And worse – there could be serious health concerns if the plastic contains a synthetic compound called BPA, believed to be toxic for both humans and animals. Check the label.

Plastic reusable coffee cup thermo

Pic by Deathstock

Option 2 – Glass

The over-riding benefit of glass is that it won´t affect the flavour. But – it´s relatively heavy and hot to hold –  and is less likely to survive a fall onto a hard surface. Saying that, many manufacturers include a silicon sleeve to protect the cup and give you a cool, slip-free grip.

Coffee and tea glass cup

Pic by Matthew Wiebe

Option 3 – Ceramic

As with glass, a ceramic cup won´t taint the taste. Another bonus is that some are double-walled and this insulation layer keeps the coffee hot and ensures you don´t burn your hand. But as with glass, ceramic cups weigh more and break more easily than other materials.

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Option 4 – Stainless steel

These cups are almost impossible to break, they keep your coffee hot and your hands cool, and they´re easy to clean. The market leader has a leak-free silicon lid and handy silicon grip. But what about the flavour? Most reviews say the metal walls are great for black coffee  – but some claim milk can leave a smell in the metal interior that´s tough to remove.

Metal coffee mug

Pic by Matthew Sleeper

Option 5 – Silicon

Coffee cups made entirely from silicon are lightweight, heat resistant and tough to break – but some critics say the non-rigid body leads to spills and complain the lids are hard to fit. Does it pass the taste test? That´s up for you to decide but many claim the flavour is not impacted.

These five materials are the most common ones on the market but designers are constantly looking for news ideas and innovative ways to improve reusable coffee cups. The ultimate goal is to create a cup that´s practical, reasonably priced, attractive and environmentally friendly. 

But combining all of those factors in one cup can be difficult – as discovered by inventors worldwide taking part in the Betacup Challenge, launched back in 2009 but ongoing.

The competition invited designers to consider a range of factors including how their design would help reduce the number of cups thrown away each year and which resources and technologies would be needed to produce it – such as water, energy and money. In addition to these practical issues the competition asked participants to address another key issue relating to the reusable cups industry – how to motivate people to use them.

One of the most original ideas submitted was a cup made from the leaves of Areca nut palm trees. The designer claimed that 13.5 billon cups could be made each year from existing plantations and technology – with the added bonus that it would provide additional work and income to the communities where it is grown. The leaves (also known as fronds) are already used to make plates and bowls in many countries.

A key feature of this coffee cup design is the fact it wouldn´t be reusable – it´s intended to be used once and dumped afterwards – but designers claim that since the palm leaves are completely biodegradable and would come from existing plantations, the environmental impact is negligible. This cup is not yet available for purchase – but watch this space.

In the meantime you may want to consider a totally different approach to the reusable coffee cup problem, offered by American firm Cuppow. Instead of designing a new cup, the Massachusetts company has created a drinking lid which fits perfectly to regular glass jars.

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The company describes its product as “a simple adaptor that allows people to upcycle an everyday item into the only travel mug they’ll ever need. Because it’s recycled and recyclable every Cuppow is a part of a completely sustainable cycle that diverts waste from landfills.”

And of course, the lid is made from plastic which is BPA-free.

As you can see, there is no shortage of options when it comes to choosing your perfect reusable coffee cup. But this gives rise to the key question – why do most people still use the paper cups provided by coffee shops? In most cases, the answer is simple – it´s inconvenient.

While most of us care about the environment and make some effort to reduce our personal carbon footprints, old habits die hard  – and old habits related to early-morning coffee fixes die even harder. Change is possible, of course, but switching to a reusable coffee cup presents more challenges than you may have imagined.

First inconvenience, you need to remember to take the cup with you. It´s fundamental – but most probably the point at which most coffee drinkers´ eco-missions come to a stuttering end.

Second inconvenience, you need to find a place to carry and store your cup before and after use. Will it fit in your coat pocket? Your handbag? Your briefcase? What if you don´t carry a bag? It´s a conundrum that nobody has quite managed to solve so far. For those of you travelling by car, does it fit securely into the cup-holder?

Third inconvenience –– when and where can you wash and dry the cup? Will it smell if you don´t wash it right away? Will the remains of the foamed milk leak out? Will it impact your image at work if you´re caught with your sleeves rolled up, rinsing the remains of your latte down the sink?

For many coffee drinkers, these three obstacles are enough to convince them that paper cups are the only practical option in today´s fast-paced world. It´s easier, it´s quicker, and more to the point,  there´s far less chance you´ll end up with coffee spills in your briefcase.

For all the wonderful innovations and bright ideas we encounter, I believe one thing is sorely lacking from the campaign to banish paper cups. Motivation, motivation, motivation. In my view, statistics about landfill – however horrifying –  are not enough to inspire a change of habit.

Today´s media bombards us with numbers, but often the story behind them is not heard.

Add a few photos of anonymous poor people in anonymous poor countries, heaving a tiny boat through a big river of dumped coffee cups and maybe a few people will start to understand the scale of the problem. But will that understanding be enough to motivate a long-term change of habit?

Maybe – but it´s tough to stay motivated when you see no obvious results or benefits from your actions. So what´s the solution? What will help people become and remain motivated?

My theory? Cheaper coffee. Or even better, free coffee.

The majority of coffee shops offer little or no motivation to customers who bring their own cup. But if they reduced the price of coffee served in a reusable cup or offered bigger and better loyalty incentives for those customers, more and more people would embrace the idea.

Okay, morally it´s a bit skewed. But I do believe that the offer of free coffee would inspire people more than the abstract notion of saving the planet. And if we can save the planet and get free coffee at the same time, I´d say that´s something to celebrate.