In Melbourne lattes, flat whites and espressos are part of the city’s vibrant café culture and for those on the run there is the undeniable convenience of the disposable cup, a container made of paper or plastic designed to contain precious hot liquid only to be discarded within minutes.
It’s in those two to five minutes of caffeine-induced bliss that the environment takes quite a hit in the form of more than 500 million disposable cups sent to landfill each year in Australia alone (and a staggering 500 billion globally.) They can take 50 years to decompose.
When the organics bin couldn’t handle the volume of paper cups we produced at Sustainability Victoria (SV), all our disposable coffee cups were then sent to landfill. Realising there must be a better way we put our heads together to come up with a small change that could make a big impact.
We decided to pool the reusable cups in the office and made them more readily available in the kitchen and downstairs at the building concierge. Sounds simple, right? But with that one small change we’ve probably saved 15,000 cups going to landfill every year since 2010.
“It was slow at the start but it has definitely caught on,” says Kelly Wickham, a member of SV’s Green Leaders team, which helps to drive the agency’s sustainable office program.
“We’ve provided staff with reusable cups and also continued to promote their use through signage, staff meetings and reporting waste audit results,” he says. “We never considered an outright ban – we’re more about the carrot than the stick.”
Fellow Green Leader Sujata Doctor said the convenience of disposable cups was hard to ignore, but could be counteracted.
“Our concierge holds a number of reusable cups downstairs, to make it easy to enjoy that first cup of coffee without using a takeaway ” she says. “He’s become a reuse champion – and he’s happy to remind people he has them!”
Kelly says there are some practical challenges to getting rid of disposables altogether, including ensuring new staff and short-term contractors know that the cups are available, and encouraging visitors to consider borrowing a mug or buying their own reusable cup. He says it can also be difficult to get every café on board, at least in the beginning.
“Most are supportive, but we have had pushback from a couple who (mistakenly) think they are not hygienic.
“But other cafes have since started selling their own (reusable cups) so it’s spreading,” he says.
While Sujata says there is no reliable estimate of the amount of cups diverted from landfill (because staff are not required to record how many beverages they have per day), with over 100 staff, a conservative estimate is five coffees each for at least 60 of the staff, most weeks of the year.
“That’s 300 coffees a week in our office alone. Just imagine the potential if most Melbournians did it!”