Cups are everywhere. Whether you’re getting a coffee, a smoothie, or a soda, paper, plastic and styrofoam disposable cups get thrown away after being used and either remain in landfills for years, or slowly decompose and leach toxins into the environment.
Knowing that 2.8 billion disposable coffee cups a year are dumped in landfill sites across Germany, and that 320,000 “to go” coffees are delivered over the country’s counters every hour, the university city of Freiburg decided to tackle the issue with a pioneering scheme aimed at reducing waste.
Rather than expecting its residents to bring their own, or buy a brand new one on the spot, they have created the Freiburg Cup, a hard plastic to-go cup with a disposable lid that customers can obtain with a €1 deposit and return to any one of the 100 participating businesses across the city.
The cups, which are provided by local councils, are washed in the cafes and bakeries that have signed up to the scheme before being reused or redistributed. Participating stores have an identifying green sticker in the window. When you return the cup, these stores will disinfect and reuse the cups, which can be reused up to 400 times!
So far 16 outlets have agreed to take part in the “Freiburg Cup” experiment in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, including cafes in the university libraries. “The cafes and bakeries that participate, as well as the consumers, do not incur any costs,” said Freiburg’s environmental mayor Gerda Stuchlik.
But this problem isn’t just a German one, of course. Americans and Italians too are becoming a nation of caffeine addicts and the problem of waste is something relatively new – it did not exist a decade ago.
While this creates a lot of waste, it’s also environmentally unfriendly to produce this many cups. According to a study conducted by Starbucks and the Alliance for the Environmental Innovation, each paper cup manufactured is responsible for 0.24 lbs of CO2 emissions. Each 16oz paper cup also requires 33 grams of wood, 4.1 grams of petroleum, 1.8 grams of chemicals, 650 BTU’s of energy and almost a gallon of water to produce.
But why aren’t paper coffee cups recyclable? Easy. The average use-time of a disposable cup is short ‒ about 15 minutes ‒ and takeaway drinks often also include plastic lids and straws. On top of that, for obvious reasons, the cups have to be waterproof. To achieve this the card is fused with polyethylene, a material that cannot easily be separated in a standard recycling mill.
The cups, which are not made from recycled material to begin with, are designed with a thin seam of card inside which comes into contact with the hot drink. As such they have to be made from virgin paper pulp.
Plastic is even worse. Plastic cups generate about 28% more greenhouse gasses than paper cups and take up to 1 million years to decompose in a landfill. Moreover, the production of plastic cups is toxic, and the cups themselves can become a hazard by leaching toxins into the soil. While the Freiburg Cup is plastic, it’s made from polypropylene and do not contain BPA or plasticizers.
The Freiburg Cup system was implemented in 2016 and so far, has been going well. Other cities throughout Germany have expressed interest in replicating the program, as well as across the world. One problem has been the loss of about 15% of the cups, likely by the hands of tourists taking it home as a souvenir, but Environment Commissioner Gerda Stuchlik says that is a small – albeit frustrating – price to pay.