News & Blog

The life of a disposable cup: a circular approach to our take-away coffee culture

Written by: Georgina Massouraki, Campaigns Officer, Keep Scotland Beautiful

Environmental issues have been gaining traction in recent years, and among them, the issue of waste is one of the most tangible. Our material waste is piling up in enormous quantities, providing a stark reminder of just how unsustainable our current patterns of production and consumption really are. These patterns are deeply embedded in modern human life and few things symbolise them better than the ubiquitous single-use disposable items -created, by definition, to be thrown away.

With a Deposit Return Scheme in the works, a Circular Economy bill on the table, and an Expert Panel on Environmental Charging and Other Measures (EPECOM) in place, Scotland is leading the way in the global efforts to address these issues. Upcoming measures range from recycling incentives for things like cans and bottles, to controls and even bans for polystyrene and plastic stirrers. However, one of the most pervasive of single-use items, the humble cup, presents a unique challenge.

Made from a combination of paper lined with plastic, single-use cups require their very own recycling stream. This is not yet widely available and only around 4% of single-use cups used in the UK get recycled. What’s more, our burgeoning ‘on-the-go’ culture sees us go through around 478 million single-use cups each year here in Scotland – nearly 1.3 million each day. Most of these end up in landfill, in the incinerator or littering our parks, roads, beaches and beyond.

Our latest campaign is called Cup Movement in Glasgow and is tackling this problem by addressing single-use cups from the perspective of littering, recycling and reuse. Our aim is to reduce cup waste and, to do this, we are taking something of a circular approach, not just to the cup as a product, but to the whole culture that surrounds it. Disposable is no longer sustainable and the waste problem that we face is not down merely to a collection of product lifecycles but also, crucially, to a collection of behaviours and choices.

We know, broadly speaking, that to reduce cup waste we need to get more cups recycled and, ideally, reduce their use in the first place, through alternatives like reusable cups. Both outcomes present novel challenges to how things have been done so far and require a coordinated chain of decisions not just throughout the cup’s lifecycle, but also throughout the culture against which it operates.

Manufacturers determine the materials a cup is made of, and the extent to which they can be reclaimed or otherwise break down harmlessly; suppliers can play their part by choosing to provide sustainable cup options, matching them up to their customers’ needs; retailers interface with consumers, the ultimate ‘cup users’ and already many are making bold business and ethical choices that promote sustainability. It all comes down to people making choices and others still responding to them in the right way.

Cup Movement is working across these junctions, bringing together a growing membership that starts with Glasgow City Council and spans to include small retailers, large workplaces, supply chain companies and public facing businesses, whilst also working with waste partners to make cup recycling more widely available in Scotland.  We are working with all stakeholders, to generate learning, test approaches and build evidence of what works. By taking a city-wide approach to the challenge of reducing cup waste we are also laying out a blueprint for navigating, addressing and redefining the premise, industry and culture that have grown around disposable items in general. Waste as we know it is no longer an option, and only by working together, from the top down and then back up again, can we create the kind of systemic change that is needed for this next, more sustainable, chapter of human life on Earth.


Keep Scotland Beautiful is a Scottish charity that campaigns, acts and educates on a range of local, national and global issues to change behaviour and improve the quality of people’s lives and the places they care for.

For more information about their cup movement and other campaigns, visit their website here.

You can also connect with them on Facebook, witter and Instagram. 

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