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Could
‘Returnables’
Be the Future
of Coffee?

Changing Coffee in a Changing World

The world is falling out of love with single-use plastic.

In fact, according to a global survey published just last month, three-quarters of people across 28 countries agree that single-use plastic should be banned as soon as possible.

And in the EU, England, and beyond, bans on some single-use plastic items have already been implemented.

So what does all this mean when it comes to grabbing your morning coffee? (Or afternoon coffee, or maybe even evening coffee; we know how much you love the stuff!)

Pile of rubbish on the ground up against a tree, mainly consisting of disposable coffee cups.

Maybe changing the way we drink coffee on the go could be a good thing? Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash.

It could be that soon, the days of grabbing a coffee on the go in a disposable cup will be over.

There is no legislation in place yet in the EU or the UK for specifically banning disposable coffee cups, but there is in some places.

And we think there’s a very good chance this idea might just catch on.

(If you read on, you will find that this certainly doesn’t need to be a bad thing. The future of coffee is upon us!)

Are Disposable Coffee Cups Already on Their Way Out?

According to the EU’s single-use plastics directive, by 2030, all plastic packaging placed on the Union market must be ‘reusable or easily recycled’.

And because the majority of disposable coffee cups are lined with plastic and are currently difficult to recycle, this means the coffee cup — in the EU at least — will require a redesign/rethink in the coming years. Beyond the EU, it’s happening too.

In both Western Australia and the Netherlands it’s already been decided that disposable plastic coffee cups will be banned by 2023.

Similar bans on disposable coffee cups are also strongly being considered in the UK and New Zealand. And in San Francisco in the US, many of the cafes themselves have decided enough is enough when it comes to the disposable cup, requiring customers to use reusables and returnables instead.

In San Francisco there are many examples of coffee shops taking the initiative and banning disposable cups outright. These brands and cafes have decided to make their own law!

Nip over to Vancouver in Canada, or Berkeley in California right now, and you won’t find that disposable cups have been outright banned, but you will have to pay a 25 cent added charge for every disposable cup you use. (They want people to stop using them!)

So could it be that the coffee bean-shaped dominoes are already starting to fall? And that disposable coffee cups are destined to soon become a thing of the past?

It definitely does look like a real possibility. But, particularly in the EU and the UK, is it going to become the law any time soon?

What is the Legislation on this exactly?

In the EU

The EU has actually already banned some beverage containers.

As part of the single-use plastics directive, in July 2021, 10 single-use plastic items were banned across the EU. This ban included beverage containers made from expanded polystyrene, and all products made of ‘oxo-degradable’ plastic.

But because the majority of disposable coffee cups are now made from paper with a polyethylene lining (not polystyrene), they were not included in this ban. (Plastic is a whole lot more complicated than you’d think isn’t it?)

So does the EU have any plans to outright ban disposable plastic coffee cups in the near future?

Quite simply, the answer to that is no, not as yet.

The ‘European Strategy for Plastics’ was adopted in 2018 to ensure that all new plastic packaging in the EU is ‘reusable or easily recycled’ by 2030, but there is nothing specific in there about how member states must achieve this.

So some member states might decide that a ban is the best option, while others are free to look for alternative solutions.

In the UK


It seems the UK government is strongly considering taking action on disposable coffee cups, but the exact action to be taken is yet undecided. So an absolute ban is, for now, only one possibility.


The UK’s ‘25-Year Environment Plan’ seeks to ‘eliminate all avoidable plastic waste’ by the end of 2042.’ (We can probably all agree that waste from disposable coffee cups is definitely avoidable!) (And that 2042 is maybe not the most ambitious target).

Back in the present though, the UK government has recently launched a ‘call for evidence’ to help them address sources of plastic pollution. This call only closed last month, and was aimed at ‘gathering further evidence’ on problematic plastic items such as wet wipes, tobacco filters, sachets, and disposable coffee cups.

The results of this call for evidence will ‘help inform future policy making’.

So it seems the UK government is strongly considering taking action on disposable coffee cups, but the exact action to be taken is yet undecided. So an absolute ban is, for now, only one possibility.

(But by 2042, at least, disposable coffee cups in the UK should no longer end up as waste!)

Something’s Gotta Give

Overhead view of three white coffee cups lined up side-by-side on white surface.

Change is important. And one thing’s for sure, things will need to change in the coffee world if plastic waste reduction targets are to be met. Photo by Sina Asgari on Unsplash.

Throughout the EU and the UK, there is no guarantee that we will see outright bans on disposable coffee cups any time soon. But if either’s eventual target of eliminating plastic waste is to be reached, something will certainly have to change.

In the UK alone we manage to get through 2.5 billion disposable cups every year, most of which aren’t recycled! So the current reality simply doesn’t match up with the new plastic waste-free world both the EU and the UK are planning for.

So what are all the possible solutions here? What will drinking coffee look like in this new and wasteless world?

What Might Drinking Coffee Look Like in This New World?

If the ultimate goal is for all plastic packaging to eventually be reusable or easily recycled, eliminating all unnecessary waste, what are the possible solutions when it comes to coffee cups?

Well the way we see it, really there are three possible options. (And one clear winner if you ask us!)

Potential Solutions

1. Switch from Disposable Plastic Cups to Compostable/Biodegradable Alternatives:

Green compost bin, red waste bin, and yellow recycling bin lined up side-by-side.

Most compostables and biodegradables are not as sustainable as you think. Most of the time, you can’t just throw them in the compost bin at home!

If disposable plastic coffee cups are causing so much pollution, why not just switch to compostable or biodegradable disposables? That way the switch would be seamless. We could all carry on getting our coffee in the same way, only it would be in a cup that naturally dissolves back into the earth when we discard it. Right!? No waste involved!?

Well, unfortunately that is rarely the case when it comes to these ‘sustainable’ disposables.

Issues With Compostable/Biodegradable Disposables:
  • To begin with, even with compostable and biodegradable disposables, resources are required every time one of these items is produced. Each item must be manufactured and transported — using up energy and creating emissions — only for the item to be used once. These plastic-free disposables still perpetuate throwaway culture, and really are far from ‘sustainable.’

  • Many compostable or biodegradable items only actually break down under very specific conditions. Simply chucking them on your compost heap at home or into the bushes is not going to do the trick here! Industrial composting facilities are often required for these items, and these facilities are not always widely available. Meaning many are likely to end up in a landfill.

  • For most of these items, if they do end up in a landfill, they will release methane as they break down. And methane is not a good thing to be releasing if we want to mitigate climate change!

  • Compostable and biodegradable plastics can also interfere with the recycling process for regular plastics if they get mixed in with them. (Which happens more than you might think!)

Because of all this, Zero Waste Europe has advised that if market restrictions are imposed on items like disposable coffee cups; ‘there must be no exceptions for bio-based or compostable products, and the shift should focus on promoting reusable alternatives rather than to another single-use material.’

Greenpeace has also championed ‘reusable and refillable’ systems as the best solution to the plastic crisis.

So maybe it’s time we move on to the next possible solution!

2. Make Disposable Plastic Coffee Cups Easy to Recycle:

Two volunteers sorting glass, paper, and plastic items into clear boxes for recycling.

Would it be feasible to redesign existing recycling systems to cater for disposable coffee cups? Photo by cottonbro.

As we’ve already seen, most disposable coffee cups today are made from paper, and lined with polyethylene. This is precisely what makes them so difficult to recycle.

To recycle the cups, the lining must first be separated from the cup, and this process is complex and expensive. This means recycling them just isn’t currently feasible, so the majority of the cups end up in a landfill somewhere.

One way to get around this could be to re-design recycling infrastructure to make recycling the cups easier. Or possibly provide financial incentives for recyclers to recycle the cups. This way we could avoid unnecessary plastic waste by ensuring all the cups get recycled?

Now we don’t claim to be experts on this, but we would imagine both of these solutions would be very expensive, very time consuming, or both! And it’s probably unlikely that anyone’s going to completely re-design recycling infrastructure just for the sake of coffee cups. And there’s also no guarantee that people would actually recycle the cups even if they were easy to recycle!

If we’re totally honest, we actually make reusables from discarded coffee cups, and we’d still prefer if there were no discarded cups for us to use! We’d prefer if there were no single-use coffee cups around at all. We would simply make our reusables from the next waste stream that needs diverting from landfill or incineration instead.

So this option feels like a bit of a no-go to us. (And remember the good folks at Greenpeace and Zero Waste Europe did say it’s time to move on from disposables!)


If we’re totally honest, we actually make reusables from discarded coffee cups, and we’d still prefer if there were no discarded cups for us to use!


Hmmmm. Maybe there’s a much better solution in here somewhere???

3. Make Returnables and Deposit Return Schemes the Norm:

Coffee beans arranged in a love heart shape on a light brown table.

Sharing is caring, and caring is love. How about we embrace returnables ASAP and start spreading around some love? Between people, and planet! Photo by Merve Sehirli Nasir on Unsplash.

How about, we follow the advice of Greenpeace and Zero Waste Europe, and ditch disposables altogether in favour of reusables? (Even if disposables aren’t banned by law yet, it doesn’t mean we can’t ban them ourselves!)

By using a reusable cup every time we grab a coffee, it would eliminate all that unnecessary waste. It would also fall in line with the long-term plans of both the UK and the EU.

Sounds like the perfect solution, but there is one major issue; convenience.

Bringing your own reusable cup with you every time you fancy grabbing a coffee just doesn’t seem feasible. Going for coffee can often be such a spontaneous thing, so unless you have your reusable cup literally glued to yourself, you’re just not always going to have it with you.

That’s where ‘deposit return schemes’ and ‘returnables’ come in.

Deposit Return Schemes

A deposit return scheme — in the context of a coffee shop — is a system where you pay a small deposit for a returnable (and reusable) cup. You can then enjoy your tasty beverage, and return the cup when you’re done with it. There are many different ways that this might work!

Here’s a few real-world examples to give you an idea:

  • At Circular&Co. we have been helping McDonald’s run trials recently in the UK where customers pay £1 for a returnable cup. Customers can then bring the cup back to any McDonald’s participating in the trial to receive their deposit back.

  • We’ve also developed reusables for Burger King and Tim Horton’s who are running similar trials in the US, Canada, USA and Japan.

  • In Freiburg in Germany you can pay a deposit for your cup in on cafe and then return it to nearly any other cafe in town. As multiple independent cafes are participating in the same deposit return scheme!

  • Returnable cups for free!: We are even working with companies looking to offer returnable cups for free! All you have to do as a consumer is place the cups in a bin once you’re done with them. Not even a recycling bin, just a regular old bin! See because we’ve placed an RFID chip inside these cups, the local waste contractor can easily scan and separate them. They can then just place them back into the return scheme system to be used again. (After sanitizing them of course!)
RFID

It’s possible for the consumer to pick up their coffee on the go as normal in a returnable cup. Then dispose of that cup in a regular bin, without actually creating any plastic waste!


And that’s the beauty of blending RFID technology with returnable cups. This allows the whole deposit return scheme experience to be digitised. The cups can easily be tracked across the supply chain and returned with minimal effort from the consumer. Meaning it’s possible for the consumer to pick up their coffee on the go as normal in a returnable cup. Then dispose of that cup in a regular bin, without actually creating any plastic waste! Now surely that’s about as convenient as it can get, for people, and planet.

This tech also allows consumers to be rewarded for their actions. The cup can be tracked, and linked to your profile on an app. So you can be rewarded for helping to minimise plastic waste. (One free cup of coffee for every ten returnable cups successfully returned maybe!)

Now of course bringing your own reusable cup is always an option too, and whenever you can, you should!

But for the times when you can’t, deposit return schemes and RFID technology can make it possible for you to still use a reusable cup, with minimal effort.

And at Circular&Co, we’ve spent 12 months designing, testing and developing the perfect returnable cup for these changing times we live in.

The Circular Returnable Cup

Man in cafe gripping the Circular Returnable Cup which is rested on counter top.

At Circular&Co. we make all sorts of award-winning reusable coffee cups & reusable water bottles that all the good folks out there can buy, and own. But we’ve found that 94% of consumers are still not actively engaging with reusables. It seems to us that this ‘direct ownership’ model for reusables is only having a limited impact.

And we want to have a big impact!

So we’ve decided to do something different. We’ve designed what we feel is the perfect returnable cup. A cup that perfectly complements the deposit return schemes and RFID technology that we feel is the way forward for hot drinks on the go.

We’ve called it the Circular Returnable Cup, and here’s why it’s perfect.

The Perfect Cup

As sustainable as possible: The Circular Returnable Cup is made from 100% recycled content, is 100% recyclable, and is designed to last.

Cost-effective: Our returnable cup can be produced at low cost, but is very durable. It’s designed to last 500+ cycles, and has a premium look and feel which should reduce the chance of littering.

Man pouring milk into the Circular Returnable Cup.

Produced at scale: The cup can be reliably produced at scale with its simple, controllable design.

Stackable: We’ve designed this cup specifically for commercial deposit return schemes. So it is lightweight and stackable to reduce storage costs. We’ve also designed in drainage to prevent water pooling during wash/dry cycles.

Advanced Technology: Our cup is both QR and/or RFID enabled, which makes tracking and identifying each cup as easy as possible.

Patented safety: The patent-pending heat-diffusing ribs on the cup protect the user from the hot surface. Meaning there’s no need for the extra wasteful sleeve! The ribs are also easily cleaned within a commercial wash and dry set-up.

Looks the Part: Importantly, we’ve designed the Circular Returnable Cup to really appeal aesthetically. We feel this is essential for driving engagement and breaking down barriers. These cups have gotta look ‘cool’ haven’t they! (Is it cool to say cool anymore?)

Man in cafe holding the Circular Returnable Cup up to his mouth.

As well as designing the perfect cup for the future of the coffee world, we also collaborate with partners to help them make it all work.

Partner Collaboration


We collaborate with our partners to offer a workable, scalable DRS solution. This involves working with a range of logistics and software partners to deliver the entire end-to-end ‘returnable’ process.


What good is designing the perfect cup if the rest of the solution doesn’t fall into place?

That’s why we collaborate with our partners to offer a workable, scalable DRS solution. This involves working with a range of logistics and software partners to deliver the entire end-to-end ‘returnable’ process. From delivery of cups, fiscal deposit and reimbursement systems, RFID programming, cup collection, washing, and final re-delivery.

We feel, when reusable, returnable solutions like this are available, there’s no need to wait for the legislation. Even if disposable cups aren’t technically banned by law, it doesn’t mean we have to keep using them!

Surely deposit return schemes and returnables are the way forward, so why not exclusively adopt them today!?

Why We Think Industry Should Act Today

So you’re a big coffee chain — or a beautiful independent cafe, or anywhere that sells hot beverages for that matter! — and the law doesn’t currently require you to ditch disposable coffee cups. What do you do?

Well, we think you should make your own law. Change is coming and it looks like it’s gonna be reusable, returnable change. So be done with disposables now and be one of the first to embrace the returnable revolution! Make the future your present! Become one of the game-changers.

Here’s why we think you should:

Why Brands Who Adopt Returnables Today Will Be at an Advantage

Cost Savings

Certainly if you’re using our Circular cup, you will get 500+ cycles from one single cup. We assure you this will save you money compared to purchasing 500+ disposable cups.

Brand Value

If you become one of the first brands to fully commit to this truly sustainable system, it’s bound to add value to your brand in the long term. Customers will take notice and see you as a brand that is truly committed to innovation and sustainability. Being a first-mover will give you a chance to make some serious marketing waves!

Streamline Processes Early

With all these plans the EU, the UK, and other countries are making, it really does seem like a complete switch to reusables and returnables is inevitable. It’s already happening in some places, and in the coming years it will likely become the norm. If you switch solely to returnables now, it will give you a chance to streamline your processes. So by the time everyone is forced to do it, you’ll be the most efficient place around!

Be One of the Good Guys

Basically, if you make the switch to returnables now, people will notice that you’re doing the right thing. Not because you have to, but because you want to. And there’s a big difference between those two.

But If Industry Won’t Do It, Customers Can Turbo-Charge the Transition!

Of course we think it’s a brilliant idea for industry to ditch disposable cups ASAP and fully embrace returnables instead. But many brands are probably unlikely to do that until they absolutely have to.

But there is one way we can convince them to make the change today. If we as consumers start demanding a complete switch to returnables right away, you can be sure it’s going to happen.

And we’ve got the proof!

Customer Choice Makes the Difference, and We’ve Got the Proof!


Some of the global brands we have worked with have explicitly stated that they do not yet offer these solutions because customers have not yet asked for them.


At Circular&Co. we consult with many big brands about circular design. We offer them advice, and even help them run pilot schemes where they test out circular solutions, just like these returnable coffee cups.

And the truth is, some of the global brands we have worked with have explicitly stated that they do not yet offer these solutions because customers have not yet asked for them.

So the reality is clear. If the coffee drinkers of the world start demanding a switch to returnables and deposit return schemes today, the change will happen.

So, what’s stopping us? (Yes we are coffee drinkers too!)

It’s All About Perception

Lady in yellow dress with floral pattern eating steak and vegetables in a restaurant.

There are some who might be concerned about switching to returnables for hygiene reasons. But would have no problem eating in a restaurant, with cutlery somebody else has recently had in their mouth! (Maybe it really is all about perception?) Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

Consumer uptake on reusables is so far only about 6%. So it seems something radical has to happen in order to change this.

From the technology side, this radical change is already happening. Deposit return schemes coupled with RFID and QR technology will soon make super-convenient returnable cups possible. Returnables that are just as convenient as disposables.

To help this solution really become widespread, it’s essential that we make another radical change alongside it. A radical change in our mindset!

It’s essential that if we see returnables become an option in our favourite coffee place, that we choose that option. That we overcome whatever reservation it is that’s stopping us from embracing this new system. Whether that be concerns about hygiene, convenience, whatever it is!

Some people might consider drinking from a coffee cup someone else has already used to be unhygienic. But then without a second thought they’ll head out to a bar and drink from a very questionably washed pint glass! Or eat in a restaurant with cutlery that someone else had in their actual mouth just an hour before!

Maybe some folks are concerned about convenience. But as the technology takes hold, and systems become more streamlined, this really shouldn’t be much of an issue.

We know for a fact that we as consumers have the power to make the big brands act on this. All we have to do is find the mindset to embrace this returnable revolution, and the big brands will embrace it too.

We have the power to leave the disposable coffee cup in the past for good. Regardless of what the lawmakers decide.

This article was created by Adam Millett of Word Chameleon, in collaboration with Circular&Co.