Discarded coffee cups have become a massive issue for councils, writes Majella O’Sullivan

WE MIGHT be a nation of tea drinkers, but our growing love affair with the coffee bean and how we drink it is creating a headache for environmentalists and litter wardens.

The takeaway latte, cappuccino, and Americano have become such a part of our daily lives that coffee sales have skyrocketed over the past few years as cafe culture takes hold.

Bord Bia figures reveal the coffee category continued to record double-digit growth last year, with a growing base of Irish consumers developing a taste for coffee.

We spent €368m in coffee shops and cafes in 2015, with growth projected at 5.9% annually through 2018.

But our reliance on our daily caffeine hit has created a problem for local authorities, particularly in rural areas, where empty coffee cups are being discarded in hedgerows and ditches.

One local authority is attempting to tackle the problem by raising awareness.

Kerry County Council is trying to encourage vendors to use more environmentally friendly or biodegradable options or incentivise their customers to switch to reusable mugs and move away from polyethylene or polystyrene materials.

A litter audit carried out by the council’s environmental services last year found that discarded coffee cups accounted for over 30% of all litter that was collected from the roadsides.

A submission on the council’s Litter Management Plan, made by the developmental organisation Comharchumann Forbartha an Leith Triúigh in Cloghane-Brandon, on the Dingle peninsula, was one of only two received following a public consultation process.

It cited the growing problem of coffee cups discarded on roadsides in west Kerry, one of the county’s main tourism spots.

Environment officer Mícheál Ó Coileáin, says this reckless dumping has created a nuisance.

“It’s new litter that wasn’t there before but last year during the County Clean Up Day we took a sample of the bags and did a waste audit on them and about 30% of the litter picked off the road was coffee cups, used once and then disposed of,” said Mr Ó Coileáin.

“Six years ago when the County Clean Up Day started, this type of litter didn’t really exist or there were only very small amounts of it. Now it has become the single biggest problem, along with plastic bottles.”

He puts it down to the availability of coffee at retail outlets including garages, supermarkets, and coffee shops.

“It’s that takeaway culture and all the litter on the roadside unfortunately is coming from passing motorists, who have the countryside wrecked but keep their cars very clean,” said Mr Ó Coileáin.

Local authorities are obliged to update their Litter Management Plan every three years, stating the issues that are out there and how they propose to tackle them.

Authorities have looked into ways of introducing reusable coffee cups or encouraging companies to offer reduced rates to customers who supply their own mugs.
Authorities have looked into ways of introducing reusable coffee cups or encouraging companies to offer reduced rates to customers who supply their own mugs.

The country is divided into three waste management regions and the southern region has looked into ways of introducing reusable coffee cups or encouraging companies to offer reduced rates for customers who supply their own mug in an effort to curb the problem.

“Some don’t want to tie in with that so we’re trying to engage with the people who are drinking the coffee and the people who are producing it to come up with a system that will eliminate the litter,” said Mr Ó Coileáin.

“Other counties have done the same thing. You’re not going to change people’s habits and you can’t say, ‘Stop drinking coffee please, it’s littering the country’. So you have to come up with a system that will allow them to drink coffee but not create the litter.”

One of the main problems is to trying to compete with the price of the cups that are bought on such a huge scale at a relatively cheap price.

“Trying to get them to move away from something cheap to something that might be slightly more expensive is always going to be difficult,” said Mr Ó Coileáin.

“Some shops offer reuseable cups to buy at a reduced rate and you bring that back each day. We’re trying to get more of that action in place.”

Mr Ó Coileáin said while an identifiable cup might be their advertising tool, it’s a source of embarrassment when this ends up discarded at the side of the road.

“The figures weren’t there until the litter audit took place last year and that shows that 30%-plus of all the litter collected off the roads in the county were cups like that that aren’t recyclable and that is the problem, Many of them have black plastic lids that can’t be recycled either.”

While picking up the coffee to go is convenient for customers, the collection of the waste afterwards is proving a major inconvenience for local authorities.

On the right path at Bean in Dingle

Georgia Burgess of Bean in Dingle. Picture: Don MacMonagle
Georgia Burgess of Bean in Dingle. Picture: Don MacMonagle

One coffee shop is leading by example sourcing only certifiable compostable cups and lids for its carry-out beverages.

Bean In Dingle opened on Green St in June 2015 but long before this, the siblings behind the venture had put some thought into the environmental issues associated with the business.

Run by the Burgess brothers Luke, 28, and Justin, 26, and their sister Georgia, 22, Bean pays about 10c per cup extra, which they source from Cork company, Down2Earth Materials.

“I was walking out of town one day and I saw all these cups in the ditch, just chucked out and I knew there was a company doing biodegradable, compostable cups and I got in touch with Down2Earth Materials,” explains Justin.

“They probably cost about 10c per unit more and it is important to keep your costs down in business but I thought it was important.

“When the cup leaves the premises, obviously it’s out of our hands but at least they break down easily and we hope people will compost them.

“We also use compostable materials for our porridge and our breakfast boxes and we’re going to try to move towards them for our cutlery too.”

The shop is also going to introduce its own branded ‘keep cups’, which will retail at around €15 and in return offer customers a discount in the price of their favourite beverage when they use it.

John Lynch of Down2Earth Materials explains their products are made from certified compostable materials that are manufactured from plants.

“This means they’re food bin compliant and can be put with commercial food waste and it gets taken for composting to a facility run by the Cré Composting Association of Ireland,” he said.

Similarly, their products can be placed in domestic brown bins for collection or placed in home composting bins and turned into compost within eight to 12 weeks, depending on conditions.


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