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Reducing Coffee Waste in the UK

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Damon Culbert from The Rolling Bean spills the beans (pun very much intended) on the environmental impact of our ‘coffee culture’ and what can be done to address the problem.


In the UK alone, we get through 95 million cups of coffee per day

This year, the UK announced a climate emergency and dedicated the country to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The government also outlined an “ambition” to remove all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Plastic is deeply ingrained into every facet of our society so to remove all avoidable products in 20 years will be a mammoth task but one that corporations, businesses and government bodies must dedicate themselves to.

Though coffee is one of the most popular on-the-go beverages in the UK, the dramatic impact it has on the planet at every step of its life needs to be addressed. From picking to roasting to packaging, there are environmental issues which, if tackled, can have a huge positive impact on emissions in the UK to protect the future of the planet. Some of the most significant areas where businesses and consumers can make changes include coffee pods, plastic cups and used grounds.


Coffee pod recycling

Research by Halo Coffee found that there are 39,000 plastic coffee pods produced every minute around the world but only 10,000 of these are recycled. Over the course of a year, this means that 41.7 m end up in landfills. Aluminium coffee pods are actually one of the least impactful methods of making coffee, from energy expended to produce the pod to the energy used to heat the water. The biggest issue is that these pods are made from highly recyclable materials that end up polluting the earth.

Some coffee pod companies offer recycling pick-up for customers but sign-up for these kinds of initiatives is low and many pods can only be processed in specialised plants. For the UK to improve on this issue and reduce waste, companies will need to make their pods more easily recyclable or switch to compostable alternatives.

Coffee cups

Perhaps the biggest waste issue with coffee, plastic on-the-go cups are a major environmental problem in the UK. Research conducted by the government found that an estimated 30,000 tonnes of coffee cup waste is sent to landfill each year and 500,000 cups are littered every day. Most coffee cups are a plastic and paper bond which means they need to be recycled at specialised processing plants.

The recycle rate in 2016 for plastic coffee cups was 1 in every 400, but this number is now closer to 1 in 25, likely due to more coffee shops collecting cups in-store and a rise in eco-conscious behaviour. Other than recycling waste coffee cups responsibly, take away coffee providers should also consider switching to bioplastics to improve recyclability and compostability and reduce the use of oil-based plastics.


Do your bit by always carrying a reusable coffee cup to avoid unnecessary waste

Coffee grounds

Brits send 500,000 tonnes of coffee ground waste to landfill each year, emitting almost 2 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Coffee grounds offer arguably one of the easiest reuse opportunities as there are a number of applications for used coffee grounds. Many coffee shops offer their used grounds to customers to be used as plant fertiliser or to add to home compost heaps.

Alternatively, coffee grounds are a great source of energy, with companies like Bio-Bean processing grounds into coffee logs which can be burnt as fuel. Transport for London already uses coffee logs to power some London buses while those who use the logs at home will find they burn for longer than wood and produce more heat.


There are many ways to put coffee grounds to new uses yet most still ends up in landfill

Improvements in recycling

Across the UK, more and more local authorities are expanding their recycling capabilities. The government is also considering implementing standardised recycling policies for all local councils and other schemes such as a deposit return for plastic bottles. While net zero emissions and zero plastic waste are ambitious targets, they are absolutely necessary and both the government and industry will need to work hard to meet them.

About the Author: Damon Culbert from The Rolling Bean, mobile coffee van providers across the UK.

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