Single Use Plastic Cups: The Alternatives

5th February 2018

Single Use Plastic Cups: The Alternatives 1

Single-use plastic, and particularly the use of single-use plastic cups and coffee cups, is an increasingly important area (socially, politically and legally) for organisations wanting to reduce their environmental impact. We explain where the major issues lie, and what alternatives may be available for cultural organisations.

Why Consider Your Single-Use Plastic Consumption?

There are several motivations for cultural organisations to consider their own plastic cup purchasing and use, and their influence over that of their partner organisations and venues:

  • There is growing public consciousness of sustainability and waste issues, as evidenced most recently through the range of media coverage this summer around the recyclability of coffee cups (and the celebrity engagement of people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall). Consumers and event attendees are more likely to query whether the cup provided to them can be recycled. Also, waste is one of the most visible elements of environmental impact (despite being less carbon-intensive than travel or energy consumption), and has a high reputational risk.
  • Waste management costs are likely to increase over time. As resource scarcity and taxes continue to influence the price of landfill waste charges, it is prudent to reduce waste now by significantly changing the current model of operating.
  • There is a particular opportunity to innovate across urban-based organisations and events in this area. Although plastic cup use is widely tackled by individual events and by the hospitality industry at present, there are few examples of those working in more open, dynamic systems. The incentive to both keep pace in the wider sector and produce a collaborative solution is strong.
  • The events sector is increasingly moving towards more sustainable options, e.g.:
    • Each of the 20 biggest music festivals in France use reusable cups (although they operate as greenfield sites)
    • The 2015 Rugby World Cup used reusable souvenir cups.
    • The 2016 Rio Olympics created a series of collectable reusable cups (themed around the different sports events).
  • It has the potential to become an income generation activity for cultural organisations, through deposit schemes and the opportunity to pitch the cups as a souvenir option.
  • The issue will not resolve itself over time. As long as there are public events with drinks being served, there will always be a need to employ some sort of cup or glass!

What’s the Problem? The 7 Different Types of Plastic

We know that waste is one of the most visible signs of an organisation operating in an unsustainable way – it’s inefficient and consumers more resources – and we also know that almost all cultural organisations are trying to reduce their carbon footprint by reducing their waste and increasing their recycling rate.

Mixed recycling collection can lead to an approach where everything that looks like plastic goes in the same bin, but there are some types of plastic that cannot be recycled, which contaminate waste streams and which result in more waste being sent to landfill. This table summarises the different types of plastic on the market at present, what they are most often used for, and their advantages and disadvantages:

Code Name of Plastic Examples Advantages Disadvantages
1 PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) Soft drink bottles, water bottles, cooking oil, many cleaning products. Clear, flexible plastic. Sought after for recycling. Not very strong (not suitable for reusable glasses or stemmed glasses.
2 PE-HD (high-density polyethylene) Milk and juice bottles, bleach bottles, reusable cups. Clear, rigid plastic. Good for stronger containers or stemmed glasses. These plastics are recycled into new plastic containers, fleece, reusable plastic bags, etc.


3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) Plastic wraps, plastic jars, shower curtains, vinyl banners. Very tough. Toxic in some situations so rarely recycled.
4 PE-LD (low density polyethylene) Most ‘5p’ supermarket bags, plastic wraps, frozen food bags, bread bags, 6-pack rings, squeezable bottles. Very flexible and very resistant to acids and alcohols. Not many waste contractors are able to recycle it.
5 Polypropylene Yogurt containers, straws, disposable cups and plates, ketchup squeeze bottles, some baby bottles and outdoor carpet. Very common and very cheap to produce. Translucent, flexible and crack resistant. Gradually being more widely recycled: has a very high melting point so was originally restricted to certain contractors.
6 Polystyrene/
Styrofoam cups & plates, clamshell carry-out containers, foam egg cartons, building insulation, disposable cutlery, and CD cases. Inexpensive and shatterproof. Cannot be recycled.
7 ‘Other’ Some plastic baby bottles, lids, sunglasses, Nylon, signs, some plastic cutlery. Cheap to produce. Made from either mixed plastic materials, other reusable (but non-recyclable) materials like acrylic, or from PLA/Biodegradable plastic (Vegware-like) so very difficult to breakdown.

It is up to organisations to make more sustainable choices in the types of plastic they use, and how (or if) they dispose of it after use.

Alternatives to Single-Use Plastic

There are a few alternatives to plastic currently used in the sector:

  • Popular in the catering sector, paper cups have been recently highlighted for their plastic film coating (which keeps the liquid in the cups and prevents soggy cardboard) which makes recycling them very difficult. However, they are generally an inexpensive option and non-plastic-coated options are available. There are also specialist waste contractors who can recycle the composite cup material.
  • Glastonbury recently side-stepped reusable plastic cups in favour of a UK-produced, recycled stainless-steel pint cup. A much more significant upfront investment, but a higher reputational return (supported the British steel industry etc.)
  • Edinburgh-based Vegware and similar companies have created products very similar to existing plastic cups, but which can be composted alongside food waste. These have the advantage of being already established in the Scottish events sector, but are sometimes controversial (different compostables range in the sustainability of their production) and require significant control and secure waste management to ensure people don’t mistake them for non-recyclables. They should not be confused with non-compostable bioplastics, which produce methane when they break down in landfill (look for CPLA rather than PLA). The correct disposal of these types of cups should also be considered: they need to be processed by waste contractors as biodegradeable, as they can often be mistaken for ‘real’ plastic! Consider taking a look at Vegware’s ‘Close the Loop’ service, which can arrange a waste collection.

Common Challenges

There are several common issues found when trying to change single-use cup use.

  • Cost. Often poor quality, non-reusable and non-recyclable plastic cups are the least expensive on the market, with alternatives often requiring a higher cost or significant initial investment.
  • Service, Quality and Infrastructure Needs. Any used plastic cup must conform to the required health and safety standards (including environmental health standards) of the organisation. Internal policies and concerns over contamination of beer taps from dirty glasses often results in bars insisting customers receive a fresh cup each time. Thus, a larger stock must be held, or washing facilities must be on site. Some of these issues can be averted by training staff in pouring drinks without the rim of the glass making contact with the tap.
  • Style Needs. Cups need to be available in style required by the organisation (e.g. size, shape, appearance). As most innovation in this area has so far come from outdoor events, pint-sized cups are widely available, but those of a smaller size need more nuanced supplier research.
  • Customer Awareness and Behaviour Change. Cup users must also be made aware of the increased sustainability of cups, and the opportunities for returning them for re-use and recycling to avoid them still being sent to landfill.
  • Reusable Cups are not without their own environmental issues. Reusable cups contain more plastic than single use cups and are more energy intensive in their production, but once used several times they become more efficient overall. They have to be purchased with the knowledge that they will be used in practice.

Other Opportunities

When considering how to best tackle your organisation’s use of plastic cups, it is important to take into account the different type of events cups are used at, the infrastructure in place and required, the audiences and the waste streams and contractors used (or those used by the relevant venue). Some organisations may be able to ‘phase-in’ more sustainable options, such as:

  • Requiring All Plastic Cups to be Recyclable/Recycled Plastic. More about sourcing than disposal, review your current single-use plastic cup supplier to make sure that the plastic they use is recyclable.
  • Collaborative Procurement of ‘Best in Class’ Single Use Recyclable Plastic Cup. Better yet, choose a single-use plastic cup that is the product of plastic recycling itself. You might be able to work with neighbouring cultural organisations to gain cost-reductions from economies of scale.
  • Begin a Reusable Cup Scheme. Consider using branded reusable cups to build your organisation’s brand and sustainability. Companies like ‘Eco-Cup’ specialise in this service, and can even support interested organisations through a trial.

Potential Suppliers

Here is a very small selection of the huge range of potential suppliers of plastic cups, identified from their UK-base and potential offering.

Where to Start

It can be daunting to change existing unsustainable practices, but it can be exciting too! Here are some starting steps:

  1. Audit. Find out what your organisation currently uses (materials, sizes, quantities), and who (suppliers and their environmental commitments).
  2. Get senior support. Convince the person that handles the procurement of these items of the business case for switching to a more sustainable option.
  3. Learn from other Green Arts organisations. HebCelt festival runs its own reuseable cup scheme, Film City Glasgow offer a discount for customers using their own mugs, Festivals Edinburgh is working on cross-festivals city-wide cup scheme, MacRobert has created a ‘takaway cup recycling station’ to reduce their waste contamination and Dundee Rep is considering using compostables (and Fife Contemporary already does), among many others!
  4. Consider equality, diversity, and inclusion. Make sure that your measures don’t conflict with accessibility. For example, plastic straws are an unnecessary luxury for most but for people with certain disabilities they are quite essential.


The Green Arts Initiative 6The use of single-use plastic cups has been a key issue for many members of the Green Arts community over the past 12 months. The Green Arts Initiative is a community of practice for Scottish cultural organisations committed to reducing their environmental impact: free to join, you can find out more information at 


Photo by Kevin Lehtla on Unsplash

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