Wake up and smell the coffee


Our city loves coffee. We have nearly as many coffee shops as pubs, and our busy commuters love (and probably need) lots of cups of coffee on their way into London every day. The question is: what do you do with your coffee cup when you have finished with it?

Did you know that the UK is getting through 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year? That’s 7 million EVERY day. And less than one day’s worth are recycled. Yes, you read that right. Over 2.4 billion cups a year are being incinerated or put into landfill. Although the cups are mostly made of paper, they cannot be recycled with paper due to the plastic coating inside them.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is leading a campaign against the big coffee shop chains, and I thought it was interesting to find out what we are doing (or not doing) locally. I honestly think people don’t realise the problem here, and are putting cups in recycling bins, thinking they are doing the right thing.

I spoke to Charlie, who owns Charlie Coffee & Company on London Road and the very popular coffee van at St Albans train station. Charlie is well-known for her thoughtful business practices and sourcing, and she has a board in her shop telling customers about the cups she uses, so people can make an informed choice. She told me “The coffee cup dilemma, I think, is about ten years behind where it should be…. but progress is being made, just slowly.”  The cups Charlie buys are made from FSC board from sustainable forests. They are 100% compostable and the lids can go in plastic recycling. She also sells recyclable cups and will happily fill any cup you take along to the van or shop. She suggests that you put the cup in your food waste bins where they can compost. If you put your cup in paper bins at work or in bins at St Pancras, who knows if they are being fished out and recycled? Basically, they are not.


Inn on the Park is also a responsible café owner, and goes one step further. If you take a recyclable cup in they will give you 10% off the cost of your hot drink. Their funky Joco cups look lovely and are nicer to drink from than plastic lids, so why not try them?

So, local cafes can do two things. They can use eco-cups, like Charlie, and offer an incentive to recycle, like Inn on the Park. Many places locally do neither.

Nationally, some chains claim that their cups are recyclable. Hmmm. The issue is that there are only two very small recycling plants that can handle cups – they are at capacity at 6 million cups a year which is a fraction of what is needed. So even if a company tells you their cups ‘can’ be recycled, the fact is, they are not. In every meaningful sense, conventional paper coffee cups are not recyclable in Britain. Costa, for example, in 2016 sent less than 1% of its cups to be recycled.

What can we do in St Albans and Harpenden? Café owners, schools and community groups need to think about the cups that they buy. This issue didn’t exist years ago when we used good old-fashioned mugs. Shoppers need to think every time they chuck a one-use cup in the bin. Like plastic bags, I hope this wasteful habit becomes old news one day, but we are a very long way off this right now.

What can you do?

  1. Use washable cups and mugs when in a café or at work.
  2. If you want takeaway coffee, buy a recyclable cup and use it. If you buy a disposable coffee cup every work day you are getting through about 200 cups a year.
  3. Ask your coffee shop if their cups are made from renewable/recycled sources, and ask what they suggest you do with the waste.
  4. Separate the cardboard sleeve and lid and put them in the right recycling bins.

About thelocalfoodie

Food writer for The Herts Advertiser.
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