Controversial coffee cup trend sparks heated debate: 'Doesn't make sense'

Café diners are frequently choosing to drink their coffee from a controversial type of cup.

An image taken from the inside of a London café shows people sitting at tables, enjoying take-away coffees.
A tiny detail in this café photograph has sparked a serious debate about coffee culture. Source: James Atkins

A photograph has sparked uproar over an increasingly pervasive and sometimes controversial coffee cup trend. While it was snapped at a London High Street café, the behaviour is being replicated in Australia, Canada and the United States.

You’ll have to zoom in on the customers if you want to see what’s infuriated thousands of people about the behaviour. Look closely at what’s in their hands.

Instead of settling in to slowly enjoy a perfectly brewed flat white, long black or latte from a ceramic cup, customers are slurping their brew out of takeaway cups.

The picture was snapped by environmental entrepreneur James Atkins during a recent holiday to the UK.

“I spend a lot of time observing and thinking about little behaviours and things that we all do from an environmental, climate and biodiversity point of view,” he told Yahoo News.

“When I saw loads of people sitting down to drink coffee out of takeaway cups I thought that doesn’t make sense.”

Related: Single-use plastic ban comes into effect

After mulling over the behaviour in his head, and becoming frustrated by the unnecessary waste created by single-use coffee cups, Atkins turned to LinkedIn to share his frustration, sparking a heated debate.

He noted the café was doing the right thing and offering ceramic cups, but customers were asking for disposable options instead. “A proper cup represents a slower and calmer world, more appreciative. And that I feel is better for the planet,” he wrote.

Over five million other café diners have viewed his LinkedIn post about the matter. And more than 3000 have reacted, leaving hundreds of comments.

Around half a trillion coffee cups are created every year, and less than one per cent are recycled. Most cups are coated with a plastic lining, which is difficult to separate from the paper outside, meaning the easiest option is to send them to landfill where they can take decades to degrade.

While some respondents shared Atkins' environmental concerns about single-use cups, many sought to justify the behaviour.

“It’s a hygiene thing for me. I’d sooner have a plastic/paper cup than one which has been in a cafe dishwasher,” one man confessed.

“I think it is just mainly our “on the go” culture today, and the convenience of “to go” cups,” another respondent suggested.

“This is how most people order in America. In fact, many coffee shops only offer the disposable cup. If you are from one of the countries that still has the ability to order a coffee, and sit down and enjoy the experience, don't ever give that up,” someone else warned.

Background image shows a diver underwater. The data is a list of how long it takes different plastic products to break down, using data from WWF. Coffee cups - 30 years, plastic bags, 20 years, plastic bottles 450 years, and disposable nappies and plastic toothbrush 500 years.
Many consumer products will continue to pollute the Earth for decades after we have died. Picture: Getty

Many of the respondents pointed out a reason customers in London were likely choosing disposable cups – it’s cheaper and there’s a cost-of-living crisis impacting the city.

In Britain, dining in results in a 25 per cent value-added tax (VAT) being attached to your bill. So a simple hack to avoid the tax is to order it from a take-away cup and then sit down.

A bin in Germany stacked with litter including single-use coffee cups.
In most cities single-use coffee cups can't be recycled because they're lined in plastic. Source: Getty

“It seems bonkers and it’s something the government could easily fix,” Atkins said before adding it’s understandable people would opt for a take-away option, “You might save 50p or more. And if you have a coffee every day it’s a couple of hundred quid a year.

But the trend isn’t just a British one, and Atkins has identified several other reasons customers are dining in with takeaway cups.

“Some people say it keeps their coffee warmer for longer,” he said. “If you're a coffee purist and just have a single espresso, you’re probably not worried about how long it keeps warm. But it probably matters if you have one of those big, bulky, lattes with lots of stuff on it.”

Concerns about sanitation were of particular concern in the United States where customers didn’t trust the dishwashing process. And it’s common to find old lipstick on your ceramic cup.

Another theory Atkins developed after trawling through his responses is that people are drinking from take-away cups because people are always in a rush.

“That’s a shame. Because if you can take the time just to sit down, enjoy coffee, and chill out a little bit, it's probably pretty good for you,” he said.

“And also it tastes better, because the paper and plastic can impair the coffee experience.”

While there are some genuine motives for wanting to drink from a takeaway cup, Atkins also suspects there’s a psychological reason.

He thinks sitting with a coffee cup at a table, makes the drinker look busy and important, like they might need to jump up and leave at a moment’s notice.

“I suspect some people like to feel busy, and like to look busy,” he said, particularly when they do have to suddenly jump up and leave for their next business meeting. “They're sort of swishing down the high street with a phone in one hand and a coffee in the other. And then in their third hand they're carrying their bag.”

Atkins is the founder of several environmental groups including Planet League and Football for Forests.

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