A cup that you can drink out of, and then eat.
It sounds bizarre, and quite frankly, unnecessary.
But if the world truly wants to win it’s war against the waste crisis, then the future for our coffee cups may very well have to be cookie-based.
As coffee chains and restaurants aim to limit their use of single-use plastic takeout cups, dozens of new innovations are revealed every few months, all claiming to be the saviour of sustainability, and looking not too dissimilar from the coffee cups we know and love.
And while the rise of the edible coffee cup feels like it’s come and gone, it still has never been topped due to it’s simple promise of no leftover waste, whether you eat it or bin it.
Usually made from a thick biscotti-like material or a form of ice cream cone, several start-up companies have intended to start an edible coffee cup revolution, but so far none have found success on a truly global scale.
For some of you, you’ll be shocked to learn edible coffee cups even exist, as you’re unlikely to have ever seen one served up in a shop or spied the option on a menu anywhere.
And we’re sorry to disappoint you, but if you’re excited about the prospect of enjoying a cup-shaped biccy anytime soon – don’t get your hopes up.
Because while a mug that is as environmentally-friendly as it is tasty is definitely a winner in our eyes, the rest of the world remains unconvinced…
Edible Coffee Cups: The Story So Far
More of a novelty item at the time as opposed to a genuine shot at solving the waste crisis, KFC originally tested edible coffee cups in the UK all the way back in 2015.
As part of a marketing gimmick to celebrate the release of a Seattle-based coffee brand in it’s restaurants, the cups were devised by a food PR company and released by KFC for a limited time.
Known as Scoff-ee cups, the mug was crafted with wafer biscuits, lined with heat resistant white chocolate, and a sugar paper wrapping displaying the KFC logo and colours.
The cups were also infused with the smells of ‘freshly cut grass’, ‘coconut sun cream’ and ‘wildflowers’.
But after the promotion was over, so were the cups, and let’s face it, with a chocolate inner coating, they weren’t the healthiest option in the world. There was also an admission that the hotter the coffee, the faster this cup would degrade, and so while the potential was there, it was discontinued and forgotten about fairly quickly.
A start-up idea from three Bulgarian friends, the waffle-like recipe is free from preservatives and colourings and can hold coffee for 40 minutes without degrading, making it perfect for on the go takeouts.
But… well, it just hasn’t quite taken off yet.
The company has been trying to commercialise for a few years now and hasn’t quite managed to push its product beyond environmentally-minded businesses or independent coffee shops.
However, as part of a World Earth Day stunt last year, Cupfee was served on a plastic-free, ultra-long-haul flight from Abu Dhabi to Australia, the first environmentally-friendly flight of its kind.
Behind the stunt was Etihad Airways, who aim to reduce their own single-use plastic items by 80% in 2022.
As long as companies like this continue to take hardline radical approaches to solve the waste crisis, Cupfee will have a future.
It may just take some time to get going.
Twiice: New Zealand Airlines 2019
For some reason, airlines really do seem to be leading the way when it comes to utilising edible cups, so one can only assume they’re feeling tremendous guilt over their contribution to climate-changing emissions.
So with help from edible coffee cup company Twiice, Air New Zealand began trialling vanilla-flavoured biscotti mugs on board their flights.
And apparently, they’ve been a big hit with customers.
So what’s the issue this time?
Well, the main problem is that the company Twiice who make the cups are just a small family-owned business, and so the likelihood of this trial ever-expanding into something more serious is slim.
Simply put, they just don’t have the manpower to provide the millions of cups needed to suit Air New Zealand’s demand.
And so to have a truly successful effect on the waste crisis, these small start-up companies are going to need a lot more investment, trust and backing.
Why People Are Still Not Sold On Edible Cups
Understandably, there tends to be a feeling that edible cups are gimmicky or silly, and obviously not as firm or long-lasting as a plastic/paper cup.
But one of the main reasons they’re seen as a gimmick is probably due to the fact that no company will give them a real chance, and so they’ve only ever been seen as a test or promotional item for no more than a month.
Unfortunately, their fun and unique style also means they could be an easy target for more of this, as well as ‘greenwashing’ in the coming years, with companies looking to boost their profile in the wake of 2021 plans to limit single-use plastics. Even just a small trial of an edible cup can give the impression a brand is willing or looking to change, but when the time to put in real investment comes… they’re often nowhere to be seen.
Ultimately, companies and coffee chains are likely just worried about whether consumers would ever actually catch on to the idea of a biscuit cup.
The keep fit generation tend to worry more about how trim their tum is over how big the landfills are getting, and so a potentially calorific cup is probably a turn off. No matter how you package it, they will always look like a naughty treat, and so unless you eat a cookie with every cuppa joe, an edible cup probably isn’t even on your radar.
But what’s frustrating is that none of the major coffee chains has even tried to see if it would be a hit with customers.
Because just like a normal cup, you don’t have to eat it (although that brings up arguments of food waste) and unlike a normal cup, it will biodegrade just fine on a landfill.
So unfortunately for our coffee chains, there is no getting around this next fact:
That edible cups are so far the only truly sustainable and uncomplicated single-use coffee mug.
Let us explain why…
Why We Might Need Edible Coffee Cups
Prepare yourself for yet another frightening statistic on non recyclable waste.
You ready? Here it comes…
For those of you who are a little mathematically challenged, that means 99.75% of all coffee cups in the UK end up on landfills.
Again, that’s around 2.44 billion non recycled coffee cups each year.
It’s so woeful a stat that the fact itself will probably be recycled more times this year than any cup – perhaps as the fitting end to hundreds of climate change convention speeches, or maybe as a casual rebuttal to prop up a point at a thousand middle-class dinner parties. It might even just prove to be a decent opening gambit for a few blog posts (ahem).
But why exactly are we so bad at recycling our takeaway cups?
Why Normal Takeaway Cups aren’t being recycled
Well, like in almost every case, it turns out that recycling these so-called recyclable cups is a lot more difficult than you might think.
Nearly all disposable coffee cups are made with an inner lining that mixes paper and plastic – the very thing that makes them both leak and heatproof.
But in the recycling process, separating and breaking these materials down becomes mighty tricky and so it can really only be done properly at a specialist recycling plant.
Believe it or not, these kinds of recycling plants do already exist and are in place to solve the issue, however, the real problem lies with how we can actually get our cups to these plants.
For example, Ace UK, the representative body for beverage carton manufacturers, has around 415 recycling points across the UK for various paper products, including coffee cups. Cups disposed of at these points are taken to the company’s own specialist recycling plant, where they receive the processes necessary to renew them.
That would all be great news, if it wasn’t for the fact that these points are only really found in supermarket car parks, and not on the streets where we need them.
Because are we really going to successfully convince people to take all their takeaway cups home with them and then dispose of them at a later date en masse?
That’s not a rhetorical question. The answer is no.
So how exactly do we solve the issue?…
Other Non-Edible Solutions And Their Issues
Unfortunately, the infrastructure needed to support the mass transport of disposed cups to specialist recycling plants is likely too great to achieve. And therefore, we’re unlikely to see dedicated recycling bins pop up in our streets anytime soon.
As a result, most innovators have turned to what they see to be the only sustainable solution:
A new type of cup.
Of course, the idea to leap from non-recyclable cups to edible ones as a solution wasn’t instantaneous, and there are plenty of other options that have attempted to solve the issue and many others that are still vying for the planet-saving honour.
The most popular and already widely accepted form of this is the personal, reusable coffee cup.
This takes a sort of bag for life approach to takeaway coffee, where customers can simply hand their personal mug over to a barista and have it filled to the brim without having to worry about waste products after!
Plenty of coffee chains even offer incentives for customers who bring their own cups, with things like discounts or extra loyalty stamps available for environmental do-gooders.
However… it just isn’t quite catching on, and for whatever reason, people don’t want to lug a coffee flask around in their bags.
Worryingly, these figures could drop even further over the next few years, as the coronavirus pandemic saw reusable mugs temporarily banned in Starbucks as a precaution against the disease a few weeks ago. Once things return to normal, who’s to say a more germ-conscious world will be so willing to hand over their personal cups?
But whatever happens, it already appears that we as a nation aren’t personally going to do anything about non-recyclable mugs, which means the coffee chains themselves need to stop facilitating us.
So what’s their plan?
Coffee Chains seem to be pinning their hopes on compostable cups, with Starbucks trialling their ‘ultra-green’ paper cups earlier in the month.
The BioPBS™-lined cup was funded by a consortium that also includes KFC, Pizza Hut, Coca Cola and Nestle, and was discovered after the consortium hosted a NextGen Cup Challenge initiative to find inventors and industry experts with fully biodegradable cup designs.
As part of their collective effort to see waste reduced by 50% in the next decade, the companies chose BioPBS as their winner, and hope it will help replace the 250 billion paper cups produced in the world each year.
However, the disposing of the cup is still not so simple.
Rather than using a plastic liner like most disposable cups, the BioPBS utilises a compostable one, meaning plastic doesn’t end up on landfill sites and instead the liner naturally biodegrades.
And while that is all well and good… it doesn’t recycle the paper.
Alternatively, throwing it in the recycling bin won’t work either, as compostable elements can contaminate recycling processes, occasionally causing whole batches to be sent back if they can’t be efficiently separated at a plant.
This means the initiative still requires people to throw things in the correct bin, something we already know they have plenty of trouble with.
An interesting idea when it comes to tackling the problems associated with reusable mugs, Safia Qureshi’s CupClub is a circular-economy service which also aims to wipe out the need for single-use cups.
Currently only available at some London offices and University campuses, CupClub, allows coffee consumers to buy their hot drinks in a reusable mug, and then drop it off at a collection point later.
An app on your phone reminds you if you’ve forgotten to return a cup, and if you fail to do so you are charged, in a similar vein to city bike rental services.
It’s a novel idea, but given how much people struggle to put things in the right bin, it’s a stretch to imagine them tootling off to a specified collection point once they’ve finished their drink.
Still, the success of CupClub will be determined by how many sign ups it gets, and it remains to be seen whether it will take off.
Edible Is The Future
As you can see, even when the most recent innovations from Starbucks appear like revelations with fancy promises of compostability and recyclability – the reality is, we still have a long way to go.
But whereas finding sustainable plastic, paper or some other bizarre new material are the primary goal of most companies, when it comes to single use cups, we already have an answer.
Who knows if the issue is money, suitability or our tastes as consumers, but there’s no denying that the powers that be are ignoring a quick-fix solution to the waste crisis that is staring them right in the face.
Let’s just hope they can finally wake up and smell the coffee.