Microbeads are out! Next up... coffee cups

Great news this week... As of Tuesday 9th January, a long-promised ban on the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products in the UK came into effect. CAN I GET A FIST PUMP?! Talked about for months, the manufacture of plastic microbeads is now officially illegal, ahead of the legal ban on actual sales which will come into effect in July.

The use of microbeads is one of those problematic things many of us have contributed to without really ever stopping to consider. I’m certainly guilty. They’re in our toothpaste, they’re in our face wash, they’re in our shower gel and they’re put there by companies who we never think to question. This mass mindlessness leads to a devastating situation with global ramifications. In this case, these include the draining of tonnes of plastic from our bathrooms straight into the ocean, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife.

While this ban marks a huge environmental victory in the U.K., it has made me reflect more actively on what else I might be mindlessly consuming that harms the environment so catastrophically. For me, the biggest frustration in this area is the use of takeaway coffee cups. Just like microbeads, they are so hugely damaging to the environment, and yet so utterly unnecessary.

The Environmental Audit Committee in the UK – the driving force behind the ban on microbeads and the 5p plastic bag charge introduced back in 2015 – is now tackling the issue of disposable coffee cups.

This problem in the UK is almost too big to fathom: as a country, we throw 7 million disposable coffee cups in the rubbish Every. Single. Day. Stop and actually swallow that for a second. That’s 2.5 billion coffee cups a year, only 0.25% of which are recycled. The Committee is approaching the problem by recommending a 25p surcharge on disposable cups, which they’re calling the ‘latte levy.’ If it is anywhere near as effective as the plastic bag charge, it will be one hell of a big step in the right direction.

Many cafes in London already have an equivalent to the latte levy – though they are very rarely advertised – by offering a significant discount to patrons who bring their own cup. High street giant Pret a Manger offers a 50p discount on all coffees in reusable cups, and global market leader Starbucks not only offers a 25p discount, but sell sturdy reusable cups for only £1. (I can vouch for these – they’re awesome.)

In addition to the proposed ‘latte levy’ however, the Committee has recommended making all coffee cups recyclable by 2023, and if this 5-year timeframe isn’t met, then they suggest a zero-tolerance, complete ban on disposable coffee-cups, just like microbeads. YES PLEASE.

Part of the issue with disposable coffee cups is the misconception of their recyclability. Often, people think that as they’re cardboard, they can be recycled, but this is not the case. Cardboard takeaway cups are lined with polyethylene (A.K.A. common plastic) in order to make them water tight. In fact, only three plants in the whole of the United Kingdom are capable of breaking down this material, resulting in the miniscule percentage of cups actually being recycled.

Furthermore, the vast majority of disposable cups are cheaply made from virgin paper pulp, rather than more expensive recycled options, meaning the mass destruction of trees in order to manufacture them. I have come across vegware cups in the U.K. though which are fully compostable – keep an eye out! Sadly, they’re very few and far between.

I won’t go on (though I could) because I don’t think anyone in their right mind would actually argue FOR disposable coffee cups. I think their widespread use is simply the result of a lack of consideration of the problem they cause. Environmental victories, the most recent of which we have seen in the ban on microbeads this week, show how powerful we can be if we become aware of the issues which are threatening our world and as a result, threatening us all. We, as consumers, as the masses, have a choice, and we have a voice that CAN bring about amazing change. Let’s use it.

For anyone that doesn't yet have a reusable coffee cup, there are a gazillion options out there, but may I recommend Keep Cup. My absolute favourite, they're stocked in lots of cafes around London and other cities but they're easy to order online... you can custom design them too!