Some Thoughts on Reusable Cups and the ‘Latte Levy’

I’ve been a bit quiet so far this year both on this blog and on social media, as I’ve had other priorities both at work and in my personal life. But it would have been hard to miss the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s recent report highlighting the problem of single-use coffee cup and proposing a 25p ‘latte levy’ on their use. We throw away 2.5 billion coffee cups in the UK annually, and the report proposes a complete ban if a system for recycling them is not developed. Some years ago, I was guilty of misguidedly putting such cups with their plastic lining into recycling bins and was then cross with myself for not looking into this sooner.


Photo: my primary KeepCup in Byron Bay, Australia.

As for the report, there are some excellent, well-written and thoughtful analyses of its proposals and potential consequences, including from United BaristasBrian’s Coffee Spot, James Hoffmann and cafespaces. The report has certainly got those who work in and/or follow the speciality coffee industry talking about the issues on social media, which is also good, although unsurprisingly, no total consensus, even if many of us ultimately want the same outcomes, on a basic, ideal-scenario level, at least.

Various alternative ideas, nudges and solutions have been proposed, and I’m sure many more will follow. It’s certainly challenging to find ways to drastically reduce such an out-of-control environmental footprint without impacting the independent coffee shops who may not be able to withstand the financial consequences of a latte levy or a disposable-cup ban. (If, like me, you know very little about planning laws in the UK and how this relates to a coffee shop’s takeout vs drinking-in ratio, this United Baristas’ primer is very informative.)

For a long time, I wasn’t overly concerned about my own disposable-cup footprint. That’s not to say that I never use them, but for me, a cup of speciality coffee is a treat — a pleasure to be savoured while spending some time in a café — so I almost always drink in. If I know I will be going to a coffee shop to get a drink to take away, I will take a reusable cup with me — I have two 8oz KeepCups, one plastic and one glass and cork, and a tumbler from Coava in Portland. It’s very rare that I spontaneously decide to buy a coffee from an independent coffee shop and don’t have time to drink in, so carrying around a reusable cup at all times is a pain, given the low usage it would get. The main exceptions to this are a) when I get coffee after running and have nowhere to keep my KeepCup — about 1–2 times per month — and b) when I travel for work and have to squeeze an unexpected coffee shop visit in between meetings.

Although the reusable-cup offering has improved in recent years (Brian has a great guide on his blog), there still isn’t a perfect cup for me. I tend to use my plastic KeepCup the most because it’s lightweight, fits underneath my Aeropress and comes in pretty colours. The lid has occasionally come off in my bag, allowing my coffee dregs to leak and I don’t like the ‘taste’ of drinking coffee from a plastic cup. Glass cups, however, like my KeepCup Brew, are heavier and more fragile. The Frank Green cups were retailing all over the place in Australia when I visited last year, and I love the design and functionality — except the cup doesn’t quite fit under an Aeropress and thus is useless for my travel needs. There are collapsible cups available, which could solve my running problem, but the ones I’ve seen are too large for my 4–8 oz drinks (and my pockets) and unattractive. Yes, I’m shallow but yes, shallower drinks can be served in reusable cups too and people use products more when they take pleasure in using them.

I visited a lot of coffee shops in Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland and Wellington last year, and in many of them, most takeout customers were queuing patiently with their reusable cup. It was the norm, rather than the exception. I’ve also seen multiple examples there of ‘KeepCup’ being used as a generic noun for a reusable cup — the other brands may not be too fond of this, of course, but it is a sign of how commonly they are used.


Photo: my KeepCup enjoys a rooftop view over Sydney Harbour (and the Aeropress-brewed Proud Mary coffee it holds).

Just over a year ago, Brian published a post on the Coffee Spot calling for an end to the use of disposable cups. I didn’t commit then to never using another disposable cup then and I’m not going to now either. Nobody is perfect, especially not me. In the past year, though, I have cut down my already minimal use. For example, rather than getting a filter coffee to go and rushing off to my meeting, I try to order a piccolo in a ceramic cup and drink it at the bar (trying not to get in the way of staff or other customers). There are also times when I just haven’t bought a coffee I would have done otherwise because I don’t have a reusable cup with me and don’t have time to drink a filter coffee in the shop. This makes me sad, because I love to support and write about independent coffee shops (a number of ‘reusable cup’ discounts have already been springing up; I thought Caravan’s was particularly interesting).

Of course, the onus is on me to find a way to continue to give these small businesses my custom without adding to the coffee-cup mountain, whether it’s by carrying a reusable cup with me more often, planning better to make sure I have time to drink in, ordering a drink-in piccolo instead of a hand-brewed filter coffee to go…or holding out hope that someone will invent an attractive collapsible coffee cup, suitable for use with petite beverages. I suspect the inventor may well find a market!