A greener alternative to throwaway coffee cups

The UK is a nation of coffee lovers. However, our collective caffeine craving has a startling impact on the environment. According to a recent Government report we throw away some 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups every year.

Disposable cups are difficult to recycle because the polythene liner tightly bonded to the cardboard is tricky to remove. Consequently, fewer than 0.25% of cups are recycled.

In response, MPs are calling for a 25p extra charge to be placed on disposable coffee cups. Like the five pence charge now attached to plastic carrier bags, it is hoped this so-called ‘Latte Levy’ will encourage both consumers and coffee chains to consider changing behaviour and attitudes around the disposal of takeaway cups.

Designers are already one step ahead in looking for greener alternatives to the disposable cup. Two participants in the 2017 Design Council Spark innovation support programme have a potential solution to the coffee cup waste problem.

Inventors Garth Roberts and Dr Xiaobin Zhao have created CamCup, a reusable coffee mug that is actually manufactured using another waste product of the coffee industry: spent coffee grounds. The product showcases a fusion of plant and plastic technology that can save the customer money whilst reducing both carbon emissions and plastic waste.

“Green plastic – that’s a big idea,” says Roberts. “We realised pretty quickly that we needed to find a way to communicate it to people in a more manageable way. There has been a lot in the press about the problems with the coffee industry – both the disposal of the non-recyclable cups it was often sold in, and with the waste coffee grounds it produced. We saw an opportunity to apply the technology and solve those problems in one go. We envisaged a reusable, recyclable coffee cup made partly from coffee grounds. And an easy story to tell people to get the idea across.”

Reflecting on the experience of the Spark programme, he adds: “Taking part in Design Council Spark has completely energised us and transformed the project. We started out the process with a background technology and just one product to serve as an example of it, and now we have a whole new business.”