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The Future Is Returnable – A Circular Economy for Plastic Cups

The WWF-UK reports that in the UK alone we use between 2.5 billion and 5 billion disposable coffee cups every year. The UK government published guidelines to ban single-use plastics in 2024, but this does not include hot drinks containers. As a response to the UK high street's continued use of single-use coffee cups, City to Sea provide returnable cups. It was first launched in Bristol in 2016. 

The single-use plastics campaigning charity provided returnable cups schemes for businesses, cafés, campuses, and even tourist hotspots. They partnered with providers such as circular&Co and Reuser in order to help fund the scheme.

In 2016, City to Sea launched the world’s first (free with a returnable deposit for the cup) Refill app to promote living with less plastic across Bristol. It shares refill locations for ‘water, coffee, food containers and plastic-free shopping’. The scheme was also launched in Bath. Their website has a blueprint for companies to implement their own Refill Return cup scheme.

The Refill Return cup is an alternative to customers bringing their own refillable bottles or cups sometimes containing recycled plastic. Many people forget their cup at home, according to Perfect Daily Grind. Although two thirds of people report having a returnable cup, four in ten do not bring a cup when buying a hot drink. However, the Refill app includes reminders and promotions to keep customers motivated. The choice is to reuse their cup, or exchange it for a clean one. 

To measure the cup's impact, City to Sea published a guide and ran several case studies at cafes, public venues and a university. Users paid a small extra fee for their cup, then gave them back to the shop when done. The cost is then refunded in exchange for the cup. For example, the University of Bath charged £3 for a returnable cup. The returnable cups were so popular that the only complaint was why the smoothie cups were not reusable. This promoted a circular plastics economy alongside the bring your own cup (BYOC) industry. 

Personalised schemes 

City to Sea advises venues to have a cup design that is not attractive enough for customers to want to keep. The Circular Return Cup can have a QR code or an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chip to trace the cups' journey and return. At Blenheim House, a trial with RFID led to some success, but some users did not return them because they visited the venue once. 

There are promotions and personalisation through the Refill app. Some venues offered free hot drinks for every purchase for employees and customers to encourage behaviour change. This change was one of the aims for the Circular Return Cup scheme. Many people think they are buying the cup, but it is really a loan. Other challenges include time lost downloading the app itself, baristas needing to explain the scheme and inputting card details. 

Is it more ecological? 

The main problem is that single-use coffee cups accumulate in landfill sites, beaches, riverbanks, or they need to be incinerated. Buying reusables has the potential to be as convenient as single-use, both for businesses and consumers. It raises the profile of reducing plastic waste. The City to Sea Refill guide (see 'Making Reuse a Reality') includes advice for specific locations and a handy calculator to work out CO₂ savings. 

Among other initiatives, including most recently World Refill Day, City to Sea recommends taking the following steps to encourage behaviour change: a first trial, returning the reusable cup and becoming a repeat customer. It is a small change to avoid more plastic waste polluting the environment. 


For more information contact:

Tags: WeChooseReuse, System change, Waste


Two People Holding Coffee Cups- Image from Senior Living (ST ref 1311)

Woman holding refill return cup - Image by Refill (ST ref 1253)


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