Cups, pods, and corporations: Why the coffee giants are making changes

Coffee cup

Coffee cups that were once thought of as recyclable have been in the headlines recently, prompting action from some of the major coffee chains.

The sight of a lecture without coffee cups lined along the desks is rarely seen, especially during the winter months. However, this student staple is at the heart of a controversy, highlighted by a recent ‘War on Waste’ campaign by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The fallout from the campaign has led to suggestions of a new 5p coffee cup charge, following the relative success of the plastic bag scheme.

It transpires that coffee cups thrown diligently away into recycling bins never reach such an ethical end. In Britain, 2.5bn cups are thrown away each year. This is because the cups retailed by leading chains are comprised of card infused with polyethylene – a wasteful combination. This compound material renders the cups recyclable – recyclable, but in practice never recycled. Though the cups are theoretically recyclable, and often bear the famous Möbius loop, the difficulties contingent with its recycling mean that this is rarely carried out. The card and polyethylene compound is problematic to separate at a standard recycling facility, and in consequence this hardly ever takes place; Fearnley-Whittingstall stated that less than 1% of Costa’s cups went through this process.

The problem arises from the necessity of waterproofing the cups, but even the parts of the cup that needn’t be water-resistant have been found to be from a questionable source. The cardboard outer linings are made from primary materials, ‘virgin wood pulp’ as Whittingstall puts it – rather than more sustainable recycled matter. The small contact of the card parts with the drink itself means that recycled card cannot be used in the cup’s construction for reasons of hygiene.

Starbucks is singular among the big three coffee retailers, for incentivising reusable cups. They increased the incentive in response to the waste campaign, giving a 50p discount per drink if you brought your own cup in a trial that ran for two months from April this year. Nevertheless, whether or not the move is simply a push towards promoting their own reusable cups is yet to be seen.

The emphasis in urging change should rest with the companies not just consumers

In response to the exposé, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has proposed a 5p disposable coffee cup charge. The proposal, which was enforced within the annual conference of the party in September, is claimed to have the potential to reduce disposable coffee cup consumption by 2 billion cups per year. In a parallel effort to the plastic bag charge, this new scheme hopes to achieve a similar success rate; the plastic bag charge saw reduced usage of up to 80% in some regions in the first year of implementation. If the plan ever reaches fruition this could be yet another triumph for modern environmentalism, when coupled to the avowed action to be taken on ‘microbeads’.

However, even in the comfort of the home, coffee is an unavoidable environmental menace. It was reported earlier in the year that the city of Hamburg, Germany has banned coffee capsules in state buildings, as part of efforts to reduce waste. The composite aluminium and plastic packaging of the pods renders them yet another product difficult to recycle. Stokel-Walker reports that 1 in 8 coffees sold in Germany are from a coffee capsule machine, heating up the issue of coffee consumption and its environmental consequences. The growth of the coffee pod market has been 7.4% more than that of conventional coffee products since 2011 (BBC). This proves yet another example of how the amount of packaging often belies the contents. For but a small amount of coffee, there is a disproportionate amount of capsule. Plastic has replaced the coffee pod as the natural container of coffee in modern society. A simple search of ‘coffee bean pod’ online is now surmounted by images of elaborate machines and shiny packaging aplenty – the organic source itself is overshadowed by its commercial forms.

In this way, coffee has recently become a focal point for the relation of global capitalism to its environmental responsibilities – responsibilities hitherto neglected. It is possible that this issue has been evaded as liberally in the past in the same way that it was reputed taxes were. The lack of prior corporate intervention in these issues of mass waste production, points to the widespread undermining of environmental movements. Public disillusionment with recycling and waste prevention will always persist in a climate of corporate irresponsibility. Unless chains such as those aforementioned take steps to validate their claims of sustainability and make a concerted effort towards reducing their carbon footprints, there remains but little impetus for the small-scale environmental effort. Until large-scale transnational corporations make changes, consumers are provided with a scapegoat for environmental troubles. The green movement has previously relied too heavily on bottom-up, grassroots efforts – an unfair imbalance given the origins of most environmental issues. It should be up to the corporate world to set the example, to match their accountability with a correspondent and active responsibility. Until such a day, we can only prove to large-scale business that the will towards ethical consumerism is not at all lacking in consumers.

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