Coffee Shops and Sustainability – Coffee Cup Mountains and efforts to reduce them

Those who read the BBC New website may have noticed an article today which talks about the ‘waste mountain of coffee cups’, the next issue to be picked up by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his campaign to reduce waste in the UK (following on from his food waste campaign last year).  The programme focusing on this issue, Hugh’s War on Waste: The Battle continues, airs tonight on BBC 1.

As the BBC article points out hundred of thousands of coffee cups are thrown away each day.  A while ago I wrote a short article for an internal newsletter on the issue of coffee cup waste, and some of the efforts that cafes and businesses are making to try and address these issues (and others around sustainability) stemming from some of the research I’ve been doing recently about developments in the café industry.

The coffee shop sector is one of the most successful in the UK retail economy with rapid growth in sales over the last two decades to £3.3 billion in 2015, from over 6,495 outlets. While the rise in coffee shops and drinking coffee out of the home is good news for business, it accelerates issues of sustainability around consumption and waste.  A few areas where some companies have started to take action on some of these issues are explored here.

Disposable Cups

More than 2.5 billion cups are thrown away in the UK each year. Over a year, this adds up to about 25,000 tonnes of waste, which is roughly enough to fill London’s Royal Albert Hall. Standard paper cups are made from cardboard (about 95%) with a thin coating of polyethylene (about 5%), making them difficult to recycle.  However, there are a number of companies seeking to address this issue. Frugal Pac produces cups made from certified FSC board lined with a starch material which means that the cup is 100% compostable. You can watch a video about them here.


Image: WeHateToWaste

Reusable cups

If you are a regular cafe visitor you might consider getting a reusable coffee cup. KeepCup have a wide range of options. Often in many cafes there are options to buy branded KeepCups or alternative reusable cups. This is one way you could impact your level of waste, and help reduce the ‘coffee cup mountain’.

Creating a sustainable café

The Sustainable Restaurant Association have launched a Café Programme which as outlined in the SRA Press release, calls for cafes to ’go beyond the beans’, and demonstrate their efforts to operate as sustainable businesses. The programme provides cafés who join as members with a comprehensive assessment of the café’s sustainability based on 14 areas grouped under three categories:

  • Environment: Water Saving; Workplace Resources; Waste Management; Energy Efficiency; Supply Chain
  • Society: Community Engagement; Treating People Fairly; Healthy Eating; Responsible Marketing
  • Sourcing: Environmental Positive Farming; Local & Seasonal; Ethical Meat & Dairy; Fair Trade; Sustainable Fish

Depending on the scores in each of these categories, cafes will be given a score and a rating of one, two or three stars. There are whole host of ways in which cafes can make efforts to become more sustainable. The new rating system will allow cafes to demonstrate their efforts to be more sustainable beyond their sourcing of tea and coffee.

Costa Coffee and Sustainability

Some of the large coffee shop chains have been making multiple efforts to be more sustainable. Costa coffee for example has taken steps in a number of areas:

  • Coffee Cups: The thermal cover is made of recycled content and the lid is 100% recyclable. It is working with manufacturers to try to create a cup that can be recycled anywhere in the world.
  • Machines: Machines are turned off when not needed to reduce carbon emissions.
  • Recycling: recycle as much as they can. Recycle coffee sacks into carpet underlay. Many stores recycle organics waste and coffee grounds to create renewable fuels. Recently recycled over three tonnes of unwanted uniforms.
  • Grounds for Grounds: Customers can request used coffee grounds for free. Can be used in the garden as a natural plant fertiliser or to add to a compost pile.

Costa Coffee has even gone further to launch an ‘eco pod’ coffee shop which incorporates a range energy saving technologies. The store in Wrekin Retail Park, Shropshire claims to achieve zero energy* as the energy produced is equal or greater than the energy consumed – through passive ventilation and innovative construction techniques which minimise the energy required to heat and cool the building. Design features include a special timber frame from FSC sourced time, an insulated façade, solar panels, under floor heating and a passive ventilation system

Railway stations

The company that owns and operates Britain’s stations, Network Rail, has announced a new partnership with bio-bean, to turn coffee waste into biofuel, with successful trials at London’s Victoria and Waterloo stations. The scheme will now expand to Network Rail’s six biggest stations – Euston, King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, Paddington, Victoria and Waterloo, which between them generate nearly 700 tonnes of coffee waste each year. This means that rather than being sent to landfill where it would release over 5,000 tonnes of CO2, the waste will generate over 650 tonnes of biofuel, which is roughly enough to power the equivalent of 1,000 homes for a whole year.


Image: Wikimedia

There are many examples of ways in which coffee shops can begin to contribute to efforts around sustainability, of which these are just a few. As part of research in the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University investigating the growth and development of the café industry, issues of how individual businesses and the wider industry is seeking to become more sustainable will continue to be explored.


*While the coffee shop has a ‘zero energy’ score internal operating equipment, including the espresso machines, panini grills and dishwashing equipment use power in the conventional way.

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2 Responses to Coffee Shops and Sustainability – Coffee Cup Mountains and efforts to reduce them

  1. I’ve long been an advocate of reusable cups, partly because I hate the waste element and partly because coffee tastes so much better out of a glass or porcelain cup (yes, you can get robust, reusable cups made from both glass and porcelain). I also have a reusable cup made from recycled coffee grounds.

    In many ways, it’s a matter of consumer will. For the regular coffee drinker, there’s nothing stopping you buying a reusable cup and taking it with you. However, coffee shops could do more to promote reuse: by offering a discount, for example.



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