Login/Register ZWS
Main content

Wake up and smell the coffee - kicking our single-use habit

Predicting the future can be hard.

The world-famous inventor Nikola Tesla was quoted in the 1930s forecasting that within a hundred years neither tea nor coffee would be “in vogue”. Far from fading away in the 21st century, however, our love affair with caffeine has only grown since then, spawning a mountain of disposable products causing both litter and the damaging carbon emissions driving the climate emergency which we are now in.

Today in Scotland alone we collectively use and discard an estimated 200 million single-use coffee cups annually, generating nearly 6,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. We may never break, or even want to break, our caffeine habit, but we need to ditch these disposables fast to avoid a stark future which is now all too easy to foresee.

Only a tiny fraction (0.25 per cent) of disposable cups UK-wide are recycled, partly because  the plastic lining many have cannot be processed in combination with the other materials which they are made from, such as paper. As a result, when these cups end up in recycling - which they often do as people try to do the right thing - it makes it difficult or impossible to recycle any of the items being processed.

The best way to manage any waste is to prevent it in the first place. For single-use coffee cups this is easily done by switching to reusable alternatives. Many cafes, from global chains to small independents, have introduced discounts rewarding customers choosing to use their own keep cup. However, growing evidence suggests these discounts have little influence on consumer behaviour.

In contrast, a growing body of research shows that selling single-use cups separately from the coffee or other drinks which they contain can significantly increase the number of people deciding to switch to a reusable cup instead.

Disposable cups are not free, but the cost to consumers is typically hidden in the cost of the beverage they buy.  Behavioural science studies have repeatedly shown that when consumers can clearly see the cost of packaging, they will seek to avoid it, even if the price is relatively small. People will also change their behaviour irrespective of whether they are motivated by a desire to help save the planet or just want to save their pocket.

This has already been used to great effect in a range of programmes encouraging people to waste less and reuse and recycle more. It was the driving force behind Scotland’s successful 5p carrier bag charge, which reduced single-use carrier bags by 80 per cent in a single year.

Work by Zero Waste Scotland has developed further evidence that selling disposable cups separately from the drink, without raising the total sale price, could harness this effect and inspire a nationwide behavioural shift to more sustainable, reusable cups, at no extra cost to consumers or businesses. We are working with the Scottish Government to use these valuable findings to reduce use of disposable cups and the environmental impacts they generate.

All single-use packaging generates environmental impacts, as well as financial cost to consumers.  When these costs are made clear, we know consumers will be more likely to avoid those costs and seek unpackaged or reusable packaging options.

Earlier this year we published research revealing that Scottish households unknowingly buy more than 300,000 tonnes of single-use packaging for their groceries each year, collectively costing them £600 million. This generates 650,000 tonnes of carbon emissions annually, equivalent to emissions from around four million car journeys from Aberdeen to London.

As with disposable cups, people have been largely unaware of the cost of this packaging as it is hidden within the overall price of their groceries. By informing Scots of the true costs of single-use packaging, we hope to persuade more people to avoid the vast amounts which are unnecessary and single-use, and encourage retailers to provide alternatives.

Tesla’s forecast on the future of coffee and tea highlights the risk of predicting the distant future; the only real certainty is that you won’t be there to see it yourself. Yet it seems clear that we already have the information we need to make the future a whole lot brighter in a 100 years’ time. We just need to use that information well, now.

(This article was originally published in The Geographer special edition - Read full magazine.)

Close Search

Search form