Selling disposable coffee cups separately can cut waste

Disposable coffee cup

Trials by Zero Waste Scotland have shown that treating coffee cups like plastic bags could drastically cut waste

2nd October 2019 by Gareth Jones 0 Comments

Selling disposable cups separately instead of offering discounts for reusables can significantly increase the number of people choosing the more sustainable drinks option, a new study has found.

Trials led by Zero Waste Scotland revealed that cafés which replaced discounts for reusable cups with clear, equivalent charges for disposable cups significantly increased the proportion of customers switching to reusables for on-the-go coffee and tea.

Under the trials four public sector cafés in Scotland stopped giving discounts for reusable cups and instead reduced the total price of a drink by the equivalent amount and charged customers that same amount for single use cups. For example, a 10p reusables discount was replaced with a 10p reduction in the total cost of the drink and a 10p disposables charge.

That kept the overall price of a hot drink the same as it had been before both for people choosing throwaway cups and for those choosing reusables.                                          

The proportion of consumers switching from disposable to reusable cups rose across all four cafés by 50% on average.

The findings suggest that making the cost of disposable cups clear instead of hiding that cost within the total price of the drink will do more to kick Scotland’s disposable coffee cup habit than offering discounts.

Lead author Michael Lenaghan chaired a panel on reusable alternatives to single use cups at the Scottish Resources Conference (SRC) today this week, where Zero Waste Scotland joined business leaders, policy makers and workers to discuss how to reduce Scotland’s carbon footprint, most of which is caused by the nation’s vast consumption habit.

Lenaghan said: “We have shown that it isn’t necessary to charge people more for their coffee to persuade them to ditch a disposable cup in favour of a reusable one. You just need to put a clear price on the cup and let consumers decide if it is a price worth paying every time they buy a drink.

“Single use packaging has an environmental and a financial cost, but that financial cost is usually hidden from view, so consumers don’t have all the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions.

“Behavioural science has shown that people will make more effort to avoid a cost - such as a 25p charge on single use cups - than they will to obtain a gain of equal value - like a 25p reusable cup discount.”  

He said this desire to avoid cost had already been used in Scotland’s successful carrier bag charging scheme, which reduced the use of disposable carriers by 80% in a year. It will also be used in Scotland’s forthcoming deposit return scheme, urging shoppers to recycle their empty drinks bottles and cans to get their deposit back.

An estimated 200 million single use coffee cups are used every year in Scotland alone.

While many cafés offer money off to customers choosing reusable cups, research has consistently shown that this does little to encourage customers to ditch disposables in favour of more sustainable reusable cups, which account for less than two per cent of hot drink sales.