England & Wales, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development

Building a movement: tackling cup waste from all angles

As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, so too has the issue of waste and single-use disposable items. To mark No Disposable Cup Day, Georgina Massouraki, Campaigns Officer at Keep Scotland Beautiful, blogs about their Cup Movement campaign and the role local government can play.

In recent years, material waste has become an issue of increasing concern. Triggered by imagery of plastic litter choking our pristine land and sea, the wide-ranging impacts of our wasteful consumption patterns are coming into focus.

Disposable single-use items are one of the big villains of this story. Indeed, they are deemed so inherently wasteful and indulgently convenient that, among Scotland’s ambitious waste-reduction targets, the plan is to move away from them entirely. However, this change is no straightforward matter, and poses a real issue for local government, often left to deal with the unintended waste consequences of our single use consumption pattern

In hindsight, it’s easy to empathise with a time when the convenience of disposable single-use items would have been the height of progress. They seemingly freed us from the laborious frugalities of ‘waste not want not’ allowing us instead to cater to ever busier, faster-paced and on-the-go lifestyles. In this context, the waste inherent to their lifecycle was easily overlooked.

In recent times, growing piles of waste have resulted in a greater public awareness of the implications of single-use items, and for local government increasing challenges for managing these new, rapidly growing waste streams. However, with whole production industries, business models and consumer lifestyles built around on-the-go convenience, any move away from single-use options must consider all the moving parts.

A multilateral approach such as this was the basis for our Cup Movement®. This comprehensive campaign, focused upon Scotland’s largest city Glasgow, aims to work from the top down and then back up again to build a robust approach to addressing the waste associated with one of the most pervasive single-use items: cups.

Single-use cups are a daily staple for millions of commuters, travellers, workers and shoppers. The latest estimates put the number of single-use cups used and discarded in Scotland annually at 478 million. That’s around 1.3 million cups each day. So, how do we eliminate this waste? What does a world without cup waste look like?

Moving away from single-use cups entirely would require a viable alternative for reuse. However, recent polling in Glasgow revealed that only 19% of people currently own a reusable cup, and only around 5% use one regularly. So, how can we help people make the transition? There are many exciting reuse ideas, from incentives and disincentives to cup-deposit or sharing schemes. By engaging with supply chain companies, coffee retailers and consumers alike, Cup Movement harnesses existing knowledge and trials behaviour change interventions to build an understanding of opportunities, barriers and what works best.

Whilst the transition from single-use cups to a sustainable solution is bound to take time, there are ways to tackle cup waste production in the meantime. Currently only 4% of single-use cups are recycled. The rest are incinerated, landfilled or end up as litter.

Little known to most, one of the most common types of single-use cup in circulation, the paper cup, requires a special recycling process due to its plastic waterproof lining. Our polling found that 69% of people in Glasgow are mistakenly putting their paper cups in with ‘paper’ or ‘mixed’ recycling. Encouragingly, this indicates an appetite to do the right thing, provided the necessary infrastructure is in place. Cup Movement is working with our partners, including Glasgow City Council, to bring cup recycling to Scotland, overcome challenges around placement and servicing and ensure that facilities are utilised effectively.

Finally, our decades-long experience in environmental quality monitoring tells us that cup littering is still a pertinent issue. Over half of our roads were found to be littered with cups in 2012 with little evidence of improvement since.

Beyond causing pollution, cups that are littered are not recycled, thus wasting the materials from which they are made. Cup Movement addresses littering as both a gateway environmental behaviour and a wasteful habit that poses a challenge to any efforts to reduce cup waste.

We are building a network of varied stakeholders and embarking on a journey to work creatively and constructively to find solutions.  We know that it’s not enough to tell people to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’; we need to work to make it easy, accessible and practical for them to do it.  The truth is, everyone has a part to play-whether at an individual level or as local government. Ultimately, cup waste can only be reduced, and the cultural shift required towards more sustainable consumption achieved if local government continues to play its part alongside industry and members of the public.