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Are reusable coffee cups actually good for the environment?

We ask experts if using one of these makes a difference

Ed Cunningham
Written by
Ed Cunningham

In our new series ‘How green is it really?’, we dig into eco-trends and find out if they’re as sustainable as we thought.

First up: reusable coffee cups

Wait... Aren’t reusable coffee cups A Good Thing? 

Well, maybe. But it’s not totally clear-cut.

Don’t tell me I’ve been drinking from horrible, sticky, leaky cups for nothing. Please explain. 

Too often, reusable coffee cups just aren’t used enough. François Saunier of CIRAIG, a sustainability research institute, says that you need to reuse cups between 100 and 250 times to make them ‘environmentally preferable to single-use cups’. That’s because of the resources it takes to make them and repeatedly wash them up.

But isn’t disposable culture the problem?

Well, yes, but reusable cups can be damaging too. Particularly plastic ones. ‘Plastic is not a safe material,’ says Greenpeace UK senior plastics campaigner Nina Schrank. ‘Every time you wash something that’s plastic, or there is an abrasive motion on plastic, it will shed microplastics.’ 

I’ve been fed lies! Should I go back to paper cups? 

No, they’re still bad. Less than 1 percent of the 2.5 billion paper cups used annually in the UK get recycled, largely because they’ve got a plastic lining that not many recycling plants can deal with. Reusable cups are never as damaging to the environment as their disposable counterparts. 

So what should I do? No more coffee ever again?

Get yourself a nice stainless steel (easier to clean, more durable) cup, then use it. A lot. The greenest option is to not take out your coffee at all – drink it where you bought it. Saunier says that’s because restaurants and cafés have industrial dishwashers, meaning the environmental impact is lower than people scrubbing their cups at home. 

The verdict Ease up on the takeaways and sip your triple oaty mochaccino in-house. 

Meet the eco-innovators making our city greener.

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