There are few better ways to kickstart the day than with a cup of coffee, but our love of the caffeinated drink is having a devastating impact on the environment. According to a recent government report, consumers in the UK dispose of 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups a year - enough to stretch around the world five and a half times! With plastic pollution recognised as one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges, it’s time we re-think our consumer habits and start a conversation about the impact of our dependence on single-use coffee cups on the planet.

The Problem

Nothing symbolises throwaway culture better than coffee chains. Every minute in the UK, around 5000 disposable coffee cups are chucked away, and when you pile on napkins, plastic cutlery and sandwich boxes, this amounts to a whopping amount of waste. With no regulations determining what materials the mega-corporations, like Pret a Manger, Costa Coffee and Café Nero, use or how they dispose of them, they are able to do what they like. The cardboard cups you see stacked on the counters cannot be recycled in normal systems because they have a polyethene liner, which is difficult to remove. The UK only has 3 facilities that are able to split these components to recycle them, so just one in 400 cups ends up being recycled, as reported by the Independent.

Plastics linger around for hundreds of years, releasing toxins into the environment and breaking down into smaller pieces (microplastics) which pollute oceans and harm birds and marine life. How much longer will we let the environment be a dumping ground for our throwaway culture? The government aren’t exactly leading by example; according to an article by ITV, the number of disposable plastic-lined cups bought by the Welsh Assembly has increased by 20% in the last 5 years, and more than 36 million takeaway cups were purchased by Welsh health boards in the same period.


With a rising concern and awareness of the harmful impact of single-use items, coffee companies have been making some changes. In February, Pret a Manger doubled its discount to 50p on hot drinks for customers with reusable cups, while Starbucks is trialling a 5p charge on cups in 20 London cafes, but this is hardly game changing. Recently, MPs have been calling for a “latte levy” – a 25p charge on takeaway coffees, paid by the customer, in a hope to reduce disposed plastic. However, many feel it should be down to the corporations themselves to cover the costs and take responsibility for their environmental impact, rather than customers taking the price hit.  

Companies such as Biopak and Vegware make sustainable food packaging; their coffee cups are made from plants, not oil, and all their products are either recyclable or compostable. If coffee chains were to make a switch to using these sustainable packaging suppliers, it would be a huge leap in the war against plastic.

SAFE's Work

Here at SAFE, we’ve recently launched an exciting Barista training course, underpinned by a global citizenship outlook. As well as providing experience as a Barista and further skills that will aid employment, we’re educating our participants in matters of sustainability and responsible consumerism. We highlight the problems with high street coffee chains’ use of non-recyclable, single use items and discuss the alternatives, aiming to educate a new generation of consumers.

If you fancy joining our Barista Training team, email [email protected]

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