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Single Use or Reusable?

What is “single use” in the coffee business?

We often hear the term “single use”, especially in the take-out food and beverage industry. As the name suggests, it refers to all the disposable items that are part of the take-out coffee experience, what we might call “disposables”. These are the plastic-lined paper or Styrofoam cups, plastic lids and straws, cardboard carry trays, paper bags, paper napkins, sugar and condiment sachets, and plastic cutlery.

All these are manufactured in their billions, sold in the millions every day, designed to be used once, and then discarded into the rubbish. Single use.

What are Biodegradable Items?

Eventually and fairly rapidly depending on how good your garbage collection is, they end up in landfill sites, where they begin to decay. Many of these items, especially the paper and cardboard, can be recycled but human nature being what it is, they usually get tossed in a bin or black rubbish bag with the general garbage.

Of course it’s not all bad news. The basic paper items like napkins etc. and the cardboard trays start to decompose almost immediately and are fully degraded in a couple of months. However the cups with their plastic leak-proof linings and the plastic lids can take up to 30 years to biodegrade, and plastic straws can take up to 200 years – a lot of time buried in the landfill, or floating in the ocean.

What are Compostables?

There have been great advances in the development of better materials, for example cups previously lined with plastic made from petroleum based materials can now be lined with a plastic like material called Polylactic Acid (PLA) which is made from plant based matter such as corn starch and is fully degradable in a much shorter timeframe.

PLA can also be used to make straws, and the coffee pods or capsules are also being made from compostable materials. However although these are better options than before, they are all still single-use and it still ends up with tons of garbage being sent to landfills every hour of every day.

What are Reusables?

Cups

In the past anyone bringing their own cup to get a take-out coffee was seen as maybe a little eccentric, perhaps like a “Friend of the Earth” type, homespun folk on bicycles. Then the coffee business caught up with the idea and started selling special tumblers, fully insulated with sipper lids. They realised three things – one, they could make more money by selling these – two, they would save on the cost of paper cups – and three, they would be recognised as “eco-friendly”. For the shareholders, this was a good business model.

Just walk into any Starbucks and look at the merchandise shelves full of attractive, well designed reusable hot and cold cups. Chances are your local homeware store will also have them on the shelf, they are everywhere and very popular. The cold cups even come with reusable straws.

There is some resistance of course – people can be lazy, and for many of us, having to remember to bring it to the coffee shop and then wash it afterwards is just a bit too much effort. But the practice is now mainstream, and seen as a good thing to do for the planet.

Capsules

Espresso lovers have always wanted to be able to make the same sort of coffee at home but did not want the expense or bother with a cumbersome espresso machine. Luckily the coffee capsule was developed, and café-level coffee was easily accessible in every home with a small investment.

However, they may be smaller than a cup but these capsules are single use and it is estimated that over 60 billion of them find their way to landfills every year.

The simple solution is to buy a reusable capsule. Not only does it save on single use garbage but it has the great advantage that you can fill it with you favourite ground coffee. You can enjoy your best Arabica, decaf, whatever. Even Jamaican Blue Mountain, if your budget stretches that far.

The reusable capsules are cost effective, easy to clean and as above, can be refilled with whatever is your favourite ground coffee.

The Last Word

If anything was to symbolise the lifestyle of the 20th and 21st centuries, the idea of huge manufacturing plants turning out billions of highly engineered items to be used once and then discarded would certainly be an apt and almost surreal symbol.

Reusable items like cups, capsules, coffee pods, and straws are a great start and if widely used would make great inroads into the problem…but old patterns are hard to break.

Will we ever really change our habits, these almost insane yet comfortable practices that make our daily lives so convenient, or will we wait until the planet forces the change upon us?