July 4, 2023

How do reusable coffee cups contribute to a circular economy?


It’s no secret that like many other industries, the coffee sector produces significant amounts of waste. From production to consumption, it’s believed the global coffee industry generates over 20 million tonnes of waste every year. This ranges from coffee pulp to used coffee grounds to single-use cups.

Considering the latter specifically, single-use cups frequently end up in landfills where they contribute to a number of environmental problems.

In response to these sustainability issues, governments in a growing number of countries are enforcing bans on single-use items in a bid to reduce consumption of these products. This includes single-use coffee cups.

With this in mind, more and more coffee shops and roasters are implementing their own reusable cup schemes. But how can they make sure these initiatives truly contribute to a circular economy?

To answer this question, I spoke to Jasmine Evans, Sales and Marketing at The Coffee Place in Australia, which uses Huskee’s reusable cups. Read on for more of her insight on reusable coffee cups and a circular economy.

You may also like our article on how coffee shops can reduce single-use cup waste.

Coffee cherries being washed during the processing stage of coffee production.

Sustainability issues in the coffee industry

While there has been much progress to reduce the environmental impact of the global coffee industry, it’s clear that we need to do more. All levels of the supply chain produce waste, ranging from:

If not handled or disposed of correctly, waste from the coffee industry can lead to a number of environmental issues. For instance, studies have found that around 1.35 million tonnes of husk – a coffee by-product which is composed of dried skin and chaff – are produced every year around the world.

As husk contains varying levels of caffeine and tannins, it can be toxic to ecosystems and wildlife if not disposed of properly.

When it comes to the consumption end of the supply chain, it’s estimated that over 18 million tonnes of used ground coffee end up in the landfill every year globally. Moreover, when not handled correctly, certain compounds in used coffee grounds can damage surrounding soil. On top of this, they also emit greenhouse gases.

One of the biggest focuses of sustainability in the coffee sector, however, is single-use takeaway cups – and for good reason. It’s believed that in the UK alone, more than 100 paper to-go cups are purchased every second – many of which will end up in landfill where they can take up to 30 years to break down. 

This is because it can be difficult to recycle single-use coffee cups – largely down to a lack of specialist facilities and high recycling costs. Many paper cups contain a plastic lining to ensure they remain leakproof, but it can be difficult (or even impossible) for recycling facilities to remove the linings for separate processing.

Black HuskeeCup with a lid in a coffee shop.

Focusing on reusable coffee cups

In recent years, coffee consumers have become more concerned about sustainability, and their purchasing habits reflect this shift.

Among many other considerations, this means coffee shops and roasters need to move away from single-use cups and lids.

To tackle these issues, many coffee businesses have started to use compostable or biodegradable single-use cups. These break down into their base components over time to lower their environmental impact. However, if these cups are sent to landfill (where there is minimal oxygen and airflow), they can still remain intact for many years. 

Additionally, the availability and accessibility of composting facilities – which are needed to properly recycle these cups – ultimately depends on geographical location. If a coffee shop or roaster is unable to send compostable or biodegradable cups to these recycling centres then they can have a similar environmental impact to plastic or styrofoam cups.

For this reason, many coffee shops have started to implement reusable coffee cup schemes.

“We are seeing a change in the coffee industry where sustainability has become more of a focus,” Jasmine says. “There is more awareness about the impacts of certain practices, including single-use packaging.

“Companies like Huskee create easy-to-implement solutions for coffee shops and roasters,” she adds.
Jasmine tells me these solutions include the HuskeeSwap reusable cup scheme, which reduces – and can even eliminate – the use of single-use cups in coffee shops.

The impact of Covid-19 and bans on single-use plastics

Although consumer demand is helping to drive the popularity of reusable coffee cups, there are also a growing number of governments which are implementing bans on single-use plastics – including coffee cups.

For example, since July 2021, the European Union has implemented several single-use plastic products bans to reduce waste production. And in October 2023, the UK will implement similar regulations.

“Our business supports these single-use plastic bans, and we have adapted by collaborating with businesses like Huskee to find solutions for our customers,” Jasmine tells me. “We are a roaster, so we rely on the expertise of these businesses to assist us in successfully implementing reusable cup initiatives.”

Alongside these new rules and regulations, however, the pandemic had a significant impact on the uptake of reusable coffee cups. This disruption was largely down to health concerns about the spread of Covid-19.

“The pandemic brought many challenges to the hospitality industry, and it was easier to revert to single-use packaging and coffee cups to adhere to government guidelines for serving food and beverages,” Jasmine explains.

However, over the past several years, research has confirmed that Covid-19 cannot reasonably be transmitted through reusable foodware items, including coffee cups.

A barista pours latte art in a white HuskeeCup, which is made from recycled coffee husk waste.

What do coffee shops need to consider when implementing a reusable cup scheme?

It’s certainly important for coffee shops and roasters to encourage customers to use reusable coffee cups. However, when adopting their own reusable cup scheme, there are a few key considerations.

First and foremost, Jasmine says communication and training are essential. 

“Both baristas and customers need to understand the system,” she says. “So staff need training and you need to have the right set up.”

Jasmine also stresses how important it is for customers to adjust to a new cup swap programme. Coffee shops should provide a seamless and convenient user experience once implemented properly.

Opting into a reusable cup scheme

For a more streamlined approach, some coffee shops opt into pre-existing reusable cup schemes such as HuskeeSwap. To do so, coffee shops can register with Huskee for free, and purchase some reusable HuskeeCups. Participating HuskeeSwap sites also receive 20 replacement cups and 20 replacement lids every year, too.

Registered coffee shops are then featured on the Huskee app so that participating customers can search for their business.

“As a roaster, the HuskeeSwap programme allows us to provide our customers with a solution when they want to transition to a reusable cup scheme,” Jasmine says.

For instance, to participate in HuskeeSwap, customers need to purchase a HuskeeCup and then hand it over to the barista when ordering at a participating coffee shop.

They can return the used cup when they next visit any participating coffee shop. The barista will then exchange the used cup for a clean one to use for their order – essentially eliminating the need for the customer to wash their own reusable cup.

This system works differently to the bring-your-own cup model (BYO), which essentially relies on customers remembering to bring their own reusable, pre-washed, and clean cups. While BYO cups can work well, they often aren’t as effective as cup swap schemes, which are managed systems with additional benefits.

Orange HuskeeRenew cups against a white background.

Circularity is key

Reusable cup initiatives certainly help tackle a number of sustainable issues in the coffee industry. But that’s not to say that there still aren’t several other crucial points for coffee shops and roasters to consider.

If a reusable cup scheme is to be truly sustainable, it must contribute to a circular economy. This model is a “closed loop” system which is designed to minimise waste, reuse pre-existing resources, and lower environmental impact. One of the overarching goals is to prolong the lifespan of materials, rather than disposing of them after a few uses.

Ultimately, coffee businesses need to keep this in mind when choosing or implementing their own reusable cup scheme.

The materials used to manufacture reusable cups is one of the most important factors. Not only do the materials need to be sustainably sourced, but they also need to be durable and long-lasting. HuskeeCups, for example, are made from coffee husk and polypropylene resin – which uses waste and ensures the cups will last for many years.

Repurposing reusable cups

The time will come, however, when coffee shops need to retire or replace a reusable cup. In this case, coffee shops and roasters need to make sure the appropriate end-of-life solutions are in place.

One example is the HuskeeLoop system, which covers the entire Huskee range – including HuskeeCup and HuskeeRenew. This initiative repurposes more than 90% of all Huskee products and by-products so no waste is sent to landfill. This includes a dog bowl, which is the first HuskeeLoop product made from 100% recycled HuskeeCups.

Moreover, the new reusable HuskeeSteel range will also launch later this year.

Extracting espresso into a black HuskeeCup.

Some waste in the coffee industry is unavoidable, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean we can’t address other sources.

This is particularly true for single-use coffee cups. By switching to reusable cup schemes – especially ones which contribute to a circular economy – coffee businesses and consumers can lower their environmental footprint and help to drive positive, sustainable change.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on sustainability in coffee: what are the main issues?

Perfect Daily Grind

Photo credits: Huskee, Religion Specialty Coffee 

Please note: Huskee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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