How often have you found yourself needing a coffee on the run, yet without a reusable mug? Does it prevent you from ordering that coffee? Unless you're Bea Johnson, the answer is likely "no." You take the coffee to go, and, if you're like me, feel incredibly guilty for the duration of the drink.
But what if you could get a reusable coffee mug on the spot -- an affordable, convenient option that eliminates a good amount of waste? (And I'm not talking about the $25 themed ones that Starbucks hawks aggressively at Christmastime.)
The city of Freiburg, Germany, has come up with an excellent solution to the problem of rampant coffee cup waste and human forgetfulness. In November 2016, it launched the Freiburg Cup, a hard plastic to-go cup with a disposable lid that's provided to businesses by the city. Customers pay a €1 deposit for the cup, which can be returned to any one of 100 stories in the city center. These stores will disinfect and reuse the cups, up to 400 times. Participating stores have an identifying green sticker in the window.
The food- and dishwasher-safe cups are made in southern Germany from polypropylene and do not contain BPA or plasticizers. According to the new Life Without Plastic book (my go-to reference on plastic safety), polypropylene is fairly heat resistant and considered "relatively safe."
The program has been hugely successful in its first year, especially among students on the university campus. Other cities throughout Germany have expressed interest in replicating the program.
From the FAQ section of the Freiburg Cup website, having a reusable cup option is particularly relevant for Germans, who drink an impressive 300,000 cups of coffee per hour. This adds up to 2.8 billion coffee cups a year, all of which are used for an average of 13 minutes before being tossed out.
Disposable coffee cups cannot be recycled easily, as we've explained before on TreeHugger. The paper is lined with polyethylene to keep it waterproof, but this cannot be separated at standard recycling facilities. The resources required to produce such a great number of cups is staggering, as well.
"43,000 trees, 1.5 billion liters of water, 320 million kWh of electricity, 3,000 tons of crude oil. Disposable cups turn into garbage after a short use, and this results in 40,000 tons of residual waste nationwide. The cups are not recycled, in many places, lying around paper cups adversely affect the city cleanliness."
If coffee companies are unwilling to make changes (as Starbucks has shown itself to be), then cities and municipalities need to come up with better solutions -- especially ones that make eco-friendly decision-making as convenient as possible. The Freiburg Cup is proof that creative green alternatives do exist; its model could easily be exported elsewhere around the world.
Indeed, this is what Environment Commissioner Gerda Stuchlik hopes. The Freiburg Cups often disappear into tourists' suitcases as a cheap souvenir, a 15 percent shrinkage rate that is frustrating, but Stucklik sys, "We take comfort in the fact that the idea of educing waste is being exported to the world with every Freiburg Cup."