In the scheme of things you might deem the tragic uptick in single-use coffee cups a trifle concern.

UPDATE (20 June 2020): Nearly 130 scientists, academics, and doctors from 19 countries signed onto a statement today reassuring retailers and consumers that reusable systems can be utilized safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene. You can read more here.

Except I know it’s bothering people. Single-use cups have long been a highly visual symbol of our throw-away mentality. And I think “covid-clarity” has got us gagging to address many of our mindless lifestyle habits, as well as the bigger crisis that looms – the climate crisis.

I’ve flagged with everyone here that I’m now turning my efforts and care to a conversation about what we want Our World to look like on the other side of the lockdown. There is an opportunity here. A pause. Let’s use it. So, here, today, I’m launching something of Let’s Get Mobilised for The Future campaign, starting with getting rid of single-use takeaway coffee cups.

I’ve provided this factsheet to start a Great Conversation with our favourite cafes.

And get the comfortable with switching fully to ‘keep cup’ takeaway cups (only) ASAP. Please share this post around and on Facebook tag your local café so they feel armed. Feel free to link them into the Responsible Cafes network too…and use the tile below on your socials.

Oh, and given this is all about being ‘in it together’, in a social contract where we do the right thing by our community…

Please always wash your cup SUPER well before taking to a cafe!!

The problem

Around the globe cafes are not able to serve coffee-to-stay but have interpreted the regulations to mean they can’t serve takeaway coffee in a cup you bring from home. The impression everyone has (from what I can gather) is that there is risk entailed.

I took a look around at the science, the law and what’s been done elsewhere regarding sensible solutions. I reached out to Australian federal and state environment departments. Several indicated interest in pursuing but then went MIA; Victoria Health has provided some great information, see below.

Federal Environment minister Sussan Ley did come back to me, and somewhat in support, with additional advice from Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office.

The full statement is below. Ley and Hunt’s replies are both cautious, understandably, and remind us to respect cafe owner’s choices. Yes!

But they confirm there is no restriction on the use of “keep cups”, and that there is no science that says they are any riskier than disposable cups.

Ley’s key point:

“If your coffee shop can accommodate your very clean keep cup as restrictions ease then that is worth discussing.”

I also chatted to the crew at Responsible Cafes and suggested we agitate on this matter. They are spreading the info, too.

Here’s a rundown of why disposable cups are such an issue. And as most of you know, they are no longer being recylced.

Also, here’s a rundown of why the biodegradable and compostable ones are just as bad for the environment.

Let’s clear things up…

Is it illegal to use reusable coffee cups during Covid-19?

No. At least not in Australia, the US and UK.

But what do various authorities actually say?

The Victorian Government have put out a helpful fact sheet. See full article here. 

They make this point.

“There is currently no evidence to suggest there is any benefit in switching to disposables.”

In the US Cameron Wolfe, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Duke University, told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s an incredibly low likelihood that [a resusable] cup would be the primary vehicle for transmission to occur.”

But doesn’t Covid-19 last longer on glass than paper?

That is possible. But disposable cups are plastic coated, in the main.

Unless you are talking about the medical-grade stuff, there is nothing intrinsically sanitary about plastic. Pathogenic bacteria and viruses will all lurk there just as happily as anywhere else. They can sit on the product inside the plastic, they can sit on the plastic itself.

In fact, a study from the New England Medical Journal indicates that COVID-19 can survive on plastic surfaces for two to three days, and on cardboard for 24 hours.

Besides, it’s kind of a moot point. In the barista-to-customer transaction, the cup is touched within a timeframe of a few minutes.

As the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA tells us, it’s very unlikely that you can catch COVID-19 from food and its packaging. 

Says Responsible Cafes: “There is nothing to say that a single use cup has not been infected during its life cycle and during the exchange to a customer.”

The best measure to prevent infection via your takeaway coffee interaction is the usual – wash hands, keep your distance etc.

Of course, some café owners want to employ extra measures to keep their staff safe. Afterall, they can’t control what you’ve done with your cup between the washing up pile and the café (albeit just as you can’t control what the café staff has done with a paper cup in the past day or two; in the final wash-up, this is a mutual obligation exercise!). So…

How cafes can make it super safe for café staff

This is the bit you can alert your local café to if they still have concerns.

1. The super clean re-usable cup from home is put on the counter…

…and the barista pours a shot and the milk in to the customer’s cup direct.

2. Make the coffee in a normal crockery cup; transfer to customer’s clean cup.

Responsible Cafes has a video here to show how to do this safely.

3. Use a cup swap scheme like Huskee Swap.

You can read about Huskee Swap here. Basically, the customer buys the cup and returns it when they go to next buy their coffee from their local café; the café commercially washes the cup and makes the customer’s new coffee in a fresh, sanitised cup. Responsible Cafes has a great video to show how easy and streamlined the system is here. If you’re a café owner, you can register your cafe here, purchase cups from here and use the code ResponsibleCafes50 for a 50% discount.

Finally, you can always go topless

The lids are an eco tragedy. Plus, they contain BPA, a known endocrine disruptor (linked to breast and prostate cancer, early puberty, obesity, autism, and fertility issues) and are banned in many other products.

It really is easy to say ‘no’ to one and, if you’re a café, you can ask customers if they actually want one before handing over their coffee, yeah?

Cath at CatfishCreates has done up a poster of me topless, wearing my green shorts and glasses, that you can hang at your  local coffee machine if you think it might help! Lord forbid.

PS here’s the Minister’s full statement:

(And I have to say I’m impressed both Ministers Ley and Hunt took my enquiry seriously.)

COVID 19 hasn’t taken away the need to reduce waste and increase recycling.

I’m all for keep cups and it would be good to see them back more widely at the right time,  but we also need to respect the pressures that small businesses like coffee shop owners and their staff will be under at present.

The current advice remains that the virus can live on surfaces for hours or days so we need to be careful.

If your coffee shop can accommodate your very clean keep cup as restrictions ease then that is worth discussing

Respect where they are for the moment either way though and commit to making a permanent change to keep cups when restrictions are removed.

At this time we need to respect the pressures that small businesses like coffee shop owners and their staff will be under at this time, while also remaining conscious of the problems disposable coffee cups present for the environment.

Work with your coffee shop owner where they are in a position to accommodate and keep your cup cleaner than ever.

Respect where they are for the moment either way and commit to a permanent change to keep cups when restrictions are removed.

Background advice we have from health.

There is no specific advice from the Department of Health in relation to the use of reusable coffee cups during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is noted that many cafes and restaurants have made the decision not to use such reusable coffee cups at this time.

This is an individual decision of such businesses, and it is likely that it is one of the steps they may have taken to maintain sound hygiene standards and reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to their staff and customers.

The decision was likely made in the context of evidence that the virus can survive on different surfaces for hours to days, and therefore, as a preventive measure to attempt to reduce virus transmission.

The rationale underpinning the use of reusable cups from an environmental perspective as a means to reduce landfill from disposable cups remains sound, and businesses may resume accepting reusable cups when the COVID-19 situation improves, at their discretion.

Hope all this helps…as I say, please do share this post around and use the information to have a chat to your local cafe crew. We can start taking action. Even small actions. For action begets action.