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Germany's coffee cup dilemma

Kate Brady
December 8, 2016

With almost 3 billion non-recyclable single-use cups being used every year, Germany is being forced to wake up and smell the coffee. Environmentalists are calling for a deposit system with multi-use cups.

Deutsche Umwelthilfe Campaign
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K.-D. Gabbert

For centuries, Europe's coffee culture was one that belonged predominantly to socializing and enjoyment. But in recent years, the number of coffee houses offering "coffee to go" has sky-rocketed, making sure that in between their hectic schedules, everyone can get their caffeine fix at the most convenient moment.

In Germany alone, around 15 percent of coffee consumed is on the go - around a third of which is sipped from a single use cup. The leaning towers of coffee cups climbing out of trash cans across city centers are just a small indicator of the environmental consequences that come with convenience.

With 70 percent of Germans currently defining themselves as a "particularly frequent" or "occasional" consumer of "drinks-to-go," some 320,000 coffee-to-go cups are being used across the country every hour, equating to almost 3 billion a year.

A representative study by the market research company TNS Emnid showed that in Berlin alone, about 460,000 coffee-to-go cups are consumed every day - and the production line is starting to take its toll. CO2 emissions of around 83,000 tons are generated every year for the production of coffee-to-go cups consumed in Germany.

Overflowing trash can
Germany's love for coffee on the go has left cities struggling to deal with the mass of paper cupsImage: picture-alliance/ROPI/A. Pisacreta

Almost no recycled paper fibers are used in the production of single-use cups, meaning that some 43,000 trees must be felled annually to keep up with Germany's demand for a cup of joe on the go. In response to EU and German regulations that call for manufacturers to ensure substances cannot leech into food or drink containers, companies have turned to using virgin materials in packaging.

But there's more than just the cup. Add in polyethylene coatings, which prevent the cup becoming soggy, a plastic lid, the occasional stirring stick, paper sleeves and cardboard carrying aids and what was originally a cup begins to resemble a small dinner set.

Demands from environmentalists

Faced with the growing environmental impact of Germany's love for java, the German Environmental Aid Association (DUH) is calling for a concerted effort to achieve a uniform multi-path system.

Thomas Fischer, head of recycling management at DUH, told DW that there are two potential solutions to reducing the number of disposable cups in circulation.

"We need to improve the appeal of multi-use cups and make the use of disposable cups less attractive," Fischer said.

"It's encouraging to see that some businesses are already offering to fill up thermal coffee cups for example, but sometimes this isn't very consumer-friendly. Customers have to plan to have their cup with them and carry it around before and after their coffee," he explained.

Freiburg coffee cup being filled with coffee
More than 50 businesses are now participating in Freiburg's pilot schemeImage: picture-alliance/ROPI/A. Pisacreta

As opposed to coffee houses simply offering refills, the DUH is proposing a linear "Pfandsystem" that would see coffee drinkers paying a deposit for a multi-use cup on the purchase of their drink. When finished, they could return the cup to any participating business and receive their deposit.

"Several federal states are working on voluntary agreements with restaurants and coffee chains," Fischer said, with pilot projects already developing in cities such as Rosenheim and Hamburg.

The southwestern city of Freiburg was the first to implement the "Pfandsystem" last month, however, with the "FreiburgCup." After launching the project with 15 participating coffee outlets and 5,000 multi-use cups, the number of businesses has almost quadrupled to 56 and an additional 10,000 cups have been distributed, Freiburg's Refuse Management and City Cleaning (ASF) told DW.

Each cup can be used and washed 400 times and carries a one-euro deposit. The lid, however, has remained disposable "for hygiene reasons."

Owner of Cafe Aspekt, Jamila Saude, told DW that after just a matter of weeks the system is proving to be a success.

"So far, around 20 to 30 percent of our customers are using the multi-use cups," she said. One problem that has arisen, however, is the size of the 300 milliliter cup.

"We've discovered that larger coffees or latte macchiatos simply don't fit," ASF chief Michael Broglin told DW, adding that the problem was being dealt with.

"It's too early to comment on the effect on refuse in the city," Broglin said, "But I am convinced this pilot project will establish itself well, and we're keen to introduce the cups into all districts of Freiburg."

Starbucks cup
Coffee giant Starbucks already offers a discounted coffee for customers with a multi-use cup, but only if its bearing the unmistakable Siren from SeattleImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot/A. Richard/B. Levine

Opposition from chains

One of the main obstacles facing a wider-reaching scheme, however, is the number of cafe chains in Germany who would be unwilling to use unbranded multi-use cups, particularly household names such as Starbucks and McDonalds.

"But these are hurdles that can be overcome," Fisher said. "And the political pressure is there - especially if an extra charge for using disposable cups is enforced."

Alongside the deposit system, the DUH is proposing to dissuade consumers from buying coffee in a disposable cup by introducing an added cost.

"This is also part of social equity," Fischer said. "It's unfair that people who are making the effort to use a multi-use cup pay the same price as someone that's adding to the piles of disposable ones."

In the meantime, Fischer said, the DUH will continue targeting its three focus groups: consumers, companies and politics - for only a combined effort of all three can keep the caffeine pumping through Germany without the environmental damage.