Recycle, reuse or discard? The case of the event coffee cup

Nigel Markey, managing director of Markey Ltd, takes a realistic look at the thorny issue of recycling event cups.

More exhibition and conference waste is being recycled, reused and downcycled than ever before, while technology is driving energy and time efficiencies with everything from LED lighting to logistics software. Our industry is perhaps the greenest it has ever been.

As a supplier of espresso and juice bars to the event industry, we use a huge number of disposable paper cups every week, serving coffee to audiences all over the world. Across the entire event industry, we discard billions of disposable cups every year, where almost all of them end up incinerated or buried as landfill. In the UK alone, 100 million cups will be discarded into general waste in 2018.

We use paper cups made from recycled paper, and offer recyclable cups too. The reality is, however, in spite of the “recyclable” logo and any amount of green credentials, the cups all end up in waste bins along with the rest of the general litter.

There are only three facilities processing and recycling plastic lined paper cups. The cups must be separated from all other waste, so every event visitor has discard their cup into the designated bins, and that the bins mustn’t contain any other waste. Hands up if you think that’s plausible?

So, can we switch to reusable cups and mugs? How is that going to work? The figures show that reusable cups quickly exceed the manufacturing and transport efficiencies of paper cups after only a few reuses, so the sustainability case for reusables is unquestionable. But reusables rely on one crucial factor for their success – user buy-in. The world is accustomed to disposable cups – and we’re asking people to make a big change in their behaviour. We need everyone to hang on to their cup and use it again, instead of tossing it in the nearest litter bin.

A levy on disposable cups has been suggested by the government, but when we’re serving complimentary coffees to conference delegates we’ll be the ones paying it. Switching to reusable cups would require us to make significant investments in buying the cups themselves, and then providing the necessary washing and collection points.

In an ideal world, every visitor would bring their own personal ceramic mug. There would be no waste, the mugs themselves would last for decades, and when they did finally reach the end of their life, the ceramic can be milled back into clay, and remade into mugs again.

Steel cups are almost indefinitely recyclable and can be reused hundreds of times before they need recycling at all. Steel is heavy and costs more to transport, but given its reusability, every reuse nudges the overall efficiency and sustainability figures up. Not everyone, however, enjoys drinking hot coffee from a metal container.

Plastic cups, come a close second to steel in reusability and recyclability, and have the added advantage that they’re not unpleasant to drink from, they insulate well and can be easily branded for marketing and promotion. As with steel, they are heavier than disposable cups, but with every reuse, their sustainability figures improve.

But ask yourself – are exhibition visitors really going to bring their personal mug with them to every event? If we invest in branded reusable cups, how many of them will actually be reused? Espresso addicts will come with their tiny reusable thimbles, whilseothers may tote their 900ml mega-buckets.

The reality is that reusable cups will work in some circumstances, like music festivals, but won’t meet with much success at conferences. Balancing reusable vs. disposable isn’t simple. Unless we can, as an industry, bring about a sea change in visitor behaviour, and couple that with a standardised, consistent collection, separation and recycling process that’s the same at every event, I think disposables are here to stay.

What’s needed, until such a time as the whole industry and the world at large, switches to reusable cups, is the completely compostable, biodegradable, plastic-free cup that breaks down into safe compounds within days. Today’s ‘biodegradable’ solutions simply don’t break down quickly or cleanly enough to qualify as being ‘sustainable’, often taking years or even decades to fully decompose.

There are some promising prototypes out there – including a completely plastic-free biodegradable water bottle. It might only be able to hold cold liquids at the moment, but given the number of disposable cups used every year – the rewards for solving this problem are going to be colossal.

I’m pretty confident, and hopeful, that the compostable, plastic-free disposable cup is just around the corner.

Related posts

NEC Group introduces carbon labelling trial at NEC and ICC venues

Figen Murray: New government must not forget Protect Duty

Phil Soar: deglobalisation – the next major issue for trade shows