Whether you are a royalist or not, Prince Charles, a long-time advocate for nature, said last week in a video recorded for the launch of a week of virtual climate change events in New York, “Climate change is rapidly becoming a ‘comprehensive catastrophe’ that would dwarf the impact of the coronavirus pandemic”.

One of the many ways that the corona pandemic has affected the global cafe scene and fundamentally the environment, is the push back on reusable cups, driven by franchise powerhouses, such as Starbucks, McDonalds, Gloria Jeans and The Coffee Club.

An unfortunate turn of events considering reusable cups was never broadly advised against or banned by state or territory health departments, who say there’s no proven benefit for switching to disposables.

Café Culture has been a keen advocate and campaigner for sustainability through the widespread use of reusable cups since the late 90’s. Studies from the University of South Australia show that people are more likely to use reusable coffee cups if they see others doing it. This is better known as ‘herd mentality!. The study also shows us, cafe owners can have success by incentivising their clientele, like for example, discounting the cost of coffee, for those people using the reusable cup.

Given this study and time it has taken to infiltrate the psyche of the average Aussie in this trend, it seems this may well be the end of the reusable cup as we know it! Symbolically the end of the world as we know it! By accepting the damage to the environment and speed of it, we are letting this pandemic push environmental concerns back 20 years.

According to a study by the University of Melbourne, Australians are throwing away one billion paper coffee cups along with their plastic lids every year.

That’s a lot of landfill. During COVID-19, reusable cups haven’t exactly been banned, but many cafes have refused to accept them choosing to use disposable cups instead, in a bid to protect their employees from potential contact from the disease. A ban on some single-use plastics was pushed back in South Australia to allow restaurants and cafes to use disposable items to improve hygiene amid the coronavirus pandemic. This led to reports of lobbyists for single use plastics using the pandemic to influence regulations!

Starbucks’ 2019 impact report shows they served only 2.8% of drinks in reusable cups last year. Consider that if Starbucks made all ‘dine-in’ options reusable, the rate would lift to 20% overnight. Spokesman for Starbucks, Robert Lynch, said: “Out of an abundance of caution, we are pausing the use of personal cups or tumblers in our stores”.

Established proprietor of Bookface cafe owner, Jo Hawes of NSW said, “I can’t understand what the difference is between a standard cup and a reusable cup. We were told it’s because of [coronavirus] being passed from hand to hand… but that’s the same regardless of the receptacle you’re holding.”

Solutions can be a catch-22, when you consider that the biodegradable or compostable packaging cup option is more expensive to the average cafe owner, living and breathing tight margins already.

This confirms what I related earlier this year from a report by APCO (Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation), which mentioned that biodegradable and compostable packaging moving forward is going to be quite difficult in this country, Australia! We don’t have a lot of facilities to make sure the cups break down; we don’t have, so to speak, enough industrial composting facilities.

Clearly the only way forward is a recyclable option and reusable packaging!

This over cautious practice of not using the reusable cup is anti-intuitive. We need solutions! My local barista mentioned a rinse from the hot water tap on every commercial coffee machine, as a possible idea. Another idea for the reusable cup is the zero contact coffee, which from my experience in a busy cafe environment could be far-fetched, along with the barista wearing Hazmat suits behind the coffee machine.

I spoke to CEO of Sol Cups, Rebecca Veksler, who generously gave me her time to tell of her experiences since the sharp push back on reusable cups. She mentioned her surprise at the way the consumer has so easily put the environment to the back burner and stopped using reusable cups. It highlights how idle people can be. Where Sol Cups have lost out on wholesale trade, Rebecca like many industries, has spent her time pro-actively pivoting towards e-commerce, utilising the Sol Cups website to promote her products. She also relays the importance of education to over-come all problems, after all she says, “the more we know, the more likely we are to do the right thing”!

Sol Cups

I do know this though, whether you’re Prince Charles or Jo Blogs, habits are hard to break, and we must find a solution to bring back the reusable cups in our cafes.

Rob Marlowe, Cafe Culture International

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