26 Sep 2023
Time is running out for coffee chains to make good on their sustainability promises. Can FlexICs finally get returnable cup initiatives over the line?
Despite our reputation as a nation of tea drinkers, the UK’s coffee industry is booming. Every 24 hours, we slurp our way through an impressive 98 million cups of Joe1, and one in five of us visit a coffee shop every day2.
While this is great news for purveyors of the world’s favourite drink, it’s not such good news for the environment: back in 2011, it was estimated that we threw away 2.5 billion coffee cups every year – enough to stretch around the world about five and a half times. And according to a government report, the number of coffee shops in the UK quadrupled between 2000 and 2017, so the actual figure is likely much higher.
Shockingly, despite many of these cups proudly sporting a ‘recyclable’ badge, just 0.25% of them are recycled. So why are we creating a coffee cup landfill mountain and why are these cups not being recycled? And how can flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs) make a difference?
Recyclable doesn’t mean recycled
Disposable coffee cups are made from paper, with a plastic lining to make them waterproof – both of which are technically recyclable. But the reality is that most recycling facilities aren’t equipped to remove the plastic lining, the paper tends to be contaminated by its contents, and there’s little to no market for the recyclate, so the majority of cups are simply thrown into landfill.
In their Second Report of Session 2017–19, Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups, the UK Environmental Audit Committee recommended that, “the Government sets a target that all single-use coffee cups disposed of in recycling bins should be recycled by 2023.”.
While that clearly hasn’t happened, in January 2023, the UK did ban single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, and some polystyrene cups and containers, so it’s plain that time is running out for disposables. But what will take their place?
There are any number of innovative solutions jostling to become the Next Big Coffee Cup Thing, but most – so far – suffer from similar obstacles to recycling.
Take compostable cups. While they’re technically compostable, they require specialised, industrial-scale facilities to be broken down rapidly, and these are few and far between. If they’re thrown on a domestic compost heap, they will decompose, but that could take over a year. And if they’re sent to a landfill and buried, it could take more than a century.
The market’s few pure-paper cups with no plastic lining should be easier to recycle, but mainstream recyclers tend to insist on cups being collected separately, for fear of contaminants.
A further issue with many alternative solutions is expense: since they’re currently niche products, they tend to come at an increased cost per unit, which may act as a deterrent to adoption, since many chains operate on slender profit margins at vast scale.
Recycling vs reuse
So, if recycling is fraught with difficulty, what’s next?
Coffee behemoth Costa is taking a different approach, declaring on their website, “We’re dedicated to increasing recycling, but we ultimately believe that encouraging reuse is the best way forward for a more sustainable future.”
They’re not the only coffee chain to think this way.
McDonald’s, Starbucks and Caffè Nero have all trialled reuse systems, with approaches ranging from using crockery or glass cups for all instore purchases to customer incentives for personal cup use. But while these projects are positive initiatives, they have yet to be adopted at scale – primarily because they don’t meet customer expectations around convenience.
The majority of customers are time-pressed, and want to grab their coffee on the go, so changing instore glassware will have little impact on most purchases. And, despite vendors offering various discounts and rewards, just one in six reusable cup owners say they remember to use it each and every time.
Since customer buy-in is an important factor in breaking our addiction to disposable paper cups, reusable solutions need to reduce friction as much as possible.
Smart, returnable solutions
One solution comes in the form of smart, returnable cups.
While smart reusable packaging has typically been reserved for high-value items, smart cups based on low-cost technology, such as FlexICs, can shift the cost-benefit curve. FlexICs’ physical flexibility means they can be applied as a durable label or embedded within the product – even on curved or domed surfaces – without impacting product aesthetics.
But why would you want to make your cups smart?
Firstly, because it makes them easy to track. Simply scanning a cup at the point of sale provides instant, real-time data on the number of cups in circulation. And since each cup has a unique ID, it’s easy to get insights into return and reuse rates, while accurately managing stock levels across the supply chain. It also provides asset-level data, to assist with reporting.
Returns are quick, easy and convenient: customers simply scan their cup and drop it at an automated return point. The return is instantly validated, and the unique ID ensures each item can only be scanned once. The process takes just moments – and since there’s no need for human intervention, baristas can focus their time on customer satisfaction instead of wrangling returns.
The smart functionality also creates an opportunity for customer engagement beyond the point of sale, giving quick and easy access to product or packaging information, special offers or details of the nearest return point. Customers can even be rewarded for consistent or repeated packaging reuse by a simple credit mechanism, linked to their mobile device.
Tiny tech for big goals
While adding technology to packaging could seem counterproductive to sustainability goals, in reality ‘tiny technology’ such as this can help drive reuse rates with minimal impact on emissions. In fact, the projected environmental footprint of a FlexIC is less than 0.5g CO2 – compared to around 10.4g for a standard, polyethylene-coated, single use coffee cup.
Of course, reusable cups are only part of the solution if they’re sufficiently reused – 20-100 times each, if they’re to be comparable with paper.
While mitigating 2.5 billion cups is a daunting prospect, adopting scalable returnable models is now a commercially viable option, and an essential step on the journey to making sustainability promises a reality.