Waste vs the pandemic: finding a new normal for single-use cups

A blog post by Georgina Massouraki

Georgina Massouraki
Acting Highland Community Waste Partnership (HCWP) Coordinator

Posted 11/09/2020

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Back in March, just as lockdown was becoming a new reality for people in Scotland and around the world, our Cup Movement in Glasgow campaign was gearing up to celebrate its first year of action - with ambitious plans for the year to come. Now, as the dust starts to settle following nearly seven months of upheaval and uncertainty, we ask ourselves: where do we go next in the battle against climate change and plastic pollution?

In a world that is consumed by an unprecedented, expansive and urgent public health crisis, how do we continue to address the unprecedented, expansive and urgent environmental crisis that continues to unfold?

Cup Movement® was a flagship campaign for Keep Scotland Beautiful, grappling with single-use culture and challenges through the lens of coffee on-the-go.  It made a good start in its first year, laying important groundwork, learning valuable lessons and identifying exciting opportunities for addressing the litter and waste created by single-use cups.

Through a combination of new and existing cup recycling options, we diverted nearly 500,000 single-use cups from landfill. We trialled messaging and interventions, raised awareness, built momentum for change and created a network of members from across sectors - businesses, organisations and individuals, all committed to reducing cup waste in any way they could.

Next, we were set to look at providing on-street cup recycling for people on the go, starting with a focus on commuters. Our polling had shown that people wanted to recycle their cups, but the option needed to be available and accessible. In addition, we had identified , through our growing network, a suite of opportunities for action, including a reusable cup deposit scheme for closed-loop settings, potentially using reverse vending technology, Cup Conversation focus groups for key groups like independent retailers and community groups and targeted interventions in cultural venues, universities and independent cafes.

All of this was put on hold indefinitely in March, 2020.

Over the past six months, we have watched the landscape of cup use change dramatically, shaped by emerging hygiene considerations, new patterns of consumer behaviours and attitudes and the pressures of reduced capacities across sectors. COP26, which was due to take place in Glasgow in October, has been postponed. Scotland’s Circular Economy Bill, which Cup Movement had been set to feed into, has been delayed. Uncertainty has made it difficult to plan for the action and impact that we set out to achieve. And yet, act we must.


Now, the easing of lockdown over the summer has provided something of a temporary platform from which to start grappling with the new normal of single-use waste. Businesses are reopening and consumers are venturing back out. And the temporary reductions in unnecessary and convenience consumption observed earlier on, are now outweighed by an upsurge in the use of single-use take-away packaging, driven by hygiene considerations and manifesting in elevated levels of litter and waste.



As such, in the first instance, ensuring more sustainable disposal of these items is integral to the way forward. The progress made by Cup Movement in establishing a cup recycling infrastructure for Scotland is timely in this regard, and both can and must be redeployed to match new patterns and trends. The on-street recycling we were already planning to trial is likely to be more important than ever, as indoor collection points in places like workplaces, shopping centres and cafes likely fall out of favour. There is sure to be a learning curve in delivering this service, but this was always going to be the case - it’s just the playing field is different now and, with limited alternatives, the stakes are higher.

When talking about sustainable disposal, we must also not forget about litter. This easily-overlooked but rather elementary issue, was always central to the Cup Movement approach. Materials that are littered not only cause pollution, but also more waste. Every item littered is lost forever from the ‘circular’ system of materials use that we must establish if we are to secure a sustainable future. In short, litter is not sustainable.

Finally, we have to talk about reuse. Ever at the top of the waste hierarchy, reusable alternatives are an ideal that we must still strive for, finding ways to overcome the real and perceived hygiene risks that now come attached to them. Alternatives are already starting to emerge, such as the City to Sea #ContactlessCoffee initiative, with certain big brands like Starbucks and Costa leading the way on keeping reusables ‘on the menu’. It is important to keep this conversation open and take every opportunity to resume our transition towards more reusable alternatives.

The true strength of Cup Movement, of course, lies in partnership and collaboration. In order to move forward, we need our members to be in a position to work with us, to develop, trial and evaluate solutions. In the current climate this too will be a challenge, as priorities in the short-term focus acutely on overcoming more immediate hurdles and uncertainty. However, we are happy to report that our partners still see sustainability as a key priority. And we are hopeful that, as we all gradually adapt to this new normal, so we will be able to start looking to the future and recommence the work we had started.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to take a step back, slow down, re-evaluate and re-prioritise what truly matters. The way that we consume is changing and, perhaps, now is a chance to overcome problems that a few months ago seemed insurmountable. Perhaps this is a chance to establish a new, more sustainable normal. Regardless of the circumstances, or how big the challenge, there are solutions out there. We must persevere and continue working together to find them, step by step.

Play your part in the Green Recovery by recycling your single-use cup where possible (e.g. in-store) or choosing to reuse where possible.

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