Nature and Biodiversity

Germany has come up with the best solution to single-use coffee cups

Coffee is served at a stand at the Coffee Fair in Lima, Peru, August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

This city has began providing a reusable cup system to combat the waste created by disposing them. Image: REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Tessa Love
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If you've been following green initiatives for a while now, then you know the common enemy that is the disposable cup. Whether getting a coffee, smoothie, or fountain soda, paper, plastic and styrofoam disposable cups are everywhere. And after using them to drink your single beverage, they're thrown away and either remain in a landfill for years, or slowly decompose and leach toxins into the environment.

The easy answer to solve this problem is to forgo the disposable cup in favor of a reusable one that you carry with you, conveniently available for all your beverage holding needs. But we all know that the reality of that is often harder than it sounds. Remembering your cup is a challenge, and sometimes you just need that midday caffeine pick-me-up. So you guiltily use the paper cup, and throw it away.

Knowing this struggle is real, the German city Freiburg has taken it upon themselves to provide citizens with an easy reusable cup system. Rather than expecting its residents to bring their own, or buy a brand new one on the spot, Freiburg has 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.

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.

This reusable cup option is particularly relevant in Germany where approximately 300,000 cups of coffeeare consumed per hour, using 2.8 billion coffee cups a year, all of which are used for an average of 13 minutes before being tossed out.

But this problem isn't just a German one, of course. In the U.S., it's estimated that we used 23 billion paper cups in 2010. On average, Americans also throw away 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups every year, and 2.5 million plastic beverage bottles every hour, both of which take longer than a paper to decompose—if they do so at all: Most of the styrofoam disposed of today will still be present in landfills 500 years from now. And if you buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 lbs of waste in one year.

While this creates a lot of waste on the backend—i.e. cups clogging landfills—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 cups 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.

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Plastic is even worse. Plastic cups generate about 28 percent more greenhouse gasses than paper cups and take up to 1 million years to decompose in a landfill. On top of that, the production of plastic cups is toxic, and the cups themselves can becomes 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. And according to the book Life Without Plastic, polypropylene is fairly heat resistant and considered "relatively safe."

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 percent 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.

"We take comfort in the fact that the idea of reducing waste is being exported to the world with every Freiburg Cup," she told Tree Hugger.

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