What makes people switch to reusable cups? It’s not discounts, it’s what others do


Sukhbir Sandhu, University of South Australia; Robert Crocker, University of South Australia, and Sumit Lodhia, University of South Australia

People are more likely to use re-usable coffee cups if they see others doing it, or if cafe owners charge extra for throwaway coffee cups, our research has found.

Our study also found people would be more likely to properly dispose of compostable cups if councils provided dedicated organic waste bins. Alternatively, councils could provide facilities allowing people to rinse compostable cups before putting them in a recycling bin.

The need to find ways to encourage Australians to quit throwaway coffee cups has never been more urgent. About 1 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown into landfill sites across Australia annually, because the polyethylene lining that makes them leak-proof also makes them unrecyclable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reportedly driven a surge in throwaway cup use as many cafes refused reusable cups at the height of the pandemic.

In places where reusable cups are allowed, however, coffee drinkers, cafe owners and local governments can use insights from behavioural science to discourage use of throwaway cups.

Read more:
The ‘recycling crisis’ may be here to stay

Coffee drinkers: show off your reusable cup

We interviewed consumers, café owners and policy makers in South Australia, and unobtrusively observed customer behaviour in cafes for around 50 hours.

One finding became very clear: people mimic each other. Customers we interviewed told us over and over that watching their colleagues bring in their reusable coffee cups (such as a KeepCup) made them change their habits. As one coffee drinker told us:

I started using a KeepCup because one of my other staff members was using a KeepCup and I was like, hmm, that’s very environmentally conscious of her.

As more consumers start using reusable coffee cups, the practice becomes ever more socially acceptable.

If others start seeing you use your reusable cup, they’re more likely to follow suit.

One of our interviewees told us she initially felt “scabby” bringing her reusable cup but as more consumers did so, she felt more confident:

At first, I would not walk across the road from work holding a cup coming here [to the cafe]. I’d just feel scabby. Because I would have been the minority. It probably was a bit less socially acceptable, but it’s probably more socially acceptable now because when I’m there I do see people walk in with their cups.

The best part is that you do not even have to nudge and preach to others (although you can if you like!).

So, coffee drinkers: if you want to make a difference, one of the easiest and best things you can do is to take your reusable coffee cup to the cafe.

You may not be aware of it, but the signalling effects are strong. Your colleagues will gradually notice and start bringing in their own reusable cups.

Cafe owners: discounts for reusable cup use don’t work

Many cafe owners offer discounts ranging from 10c – A$1 to customers who bring in their own reusable cups.

But our findings reveal these discounts are ineffective in changing consumer behaviour.

Billions of single use coffee cups end up in landfill every year.

A cafe owner we interviewed described how, despite providing a 20c discount for reusable cups, she didn’t think saving money motivated her customers:

The regulars were people who’d happily drop in a dollar tip into the jar kept on the counter. They were therefore not that concerned about 20c discount.

We know from previous behavioural psychology literature consumers are more likely to be what’s called “loss averse” as opposed to “gain seekers”. In other words, people hate paying extra for takeaway coffee cups more than they like getting a discount for bringing their reusable cups.

So, if you own a cafe, focus on making consumers pay extra for choosing takeaway coffee cups rather than offering discounts for reusable cup use. It’s more likely to motivate customers.

Policy makers: make proper disposal of compostable cups easy

Compostable cups can, in theory, be recycled. But they also end up in landfill because of a lack of appropriate bins and public waste infrastructure.

Customers often feel uncertain about how and where to dispose them. A council officer we interviewed stressed:

In the case of compostable cups, it is not solely a matter of ensuring that the cups end up in any bin, they must end up in the correct bin […] in order for compostable cups to be recycled, they must be placed in a bin dedicated to organic waste or, alternatively, rinsed and placed in a recycling bin.

Currently, however, most cities don’t have enough organic bins or facilities to allow people to rinse compostable cups before putting them in recycling bins.

Councils and city governments can address this by introducing organic waste bins as a part of the street waste infrastructure to reduce the number of compostable cups ending up in landfill.

Customers often feel uncertain about how and where to dispose of compostable cups.

Changing habits is hard but collectively, we can rewrite the waste story.

Three easy ways to do that are to bring your own reusable cup, charge extra for throwaway coffee cups and make it easy for people to recycle compostable cups.

Read more:
Avoiding single-use plastic was becoming normal, until coronavirus. Here’s how we can return to good habits

The Conversation

Sukhbir Sandhu, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Ethics, University of South Australia; Robert Crocker, Senior Lecturer, Sustainable Design Theory, University of South Australia, and Sumit Lodhia, Professor of Accounting, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sustainable shopping: tap water is best, but what bottle should you drink it from?

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The greenest option might be to get a disposable bottle but never dispose of it.

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University and Simon Lockrey, RMIT University

Shopping can be confusing at the best of times, and trying to find environmentally friendly options makes it even more difficult. Our Sustainable Shopping series asks experts to provide easy eco-friendly guides to purchases big and small. Send us your suggestions for future articles here.

We have many options when it comes to how we drink water, given the large range of consumer products available, and Australia’s high standards of tap water.

But which option is the smartest choice from an environmental perspective?

According to the waste management hierarchy, the best option is one that avoids waste altogether. Recyclable options are less preferable, and landfill disposal the worst of all.

For water bottles, this suggests that keeping and reusing the same bottle is always best. It’s certainly preferable to single-use bottles, even if these are recyclable.

Read more:
Recycling can be confusing, but it’s getting simpler

Of course, it’s hardly revolutionary to point out that single-use plastic bottles are a bad way to drink water on environmental grounds. Ditching bottled water in favour of tap water is a very straightforward decision.

However, choosing what reusable bottle to drink it out of is a far more complex question. This requires us to consider the whole “life cycle” of the bottle.

Cycle of life

Life-cycle assessment is a method that aims to identify all of the potential environmental impacts of a product, from manufacture, to use, to disposal.

A 2012 Italian life-cycle study confirmed that reusable glass or plastic bottles are usually more eco-friendly than single-use PET plastic bottles.

However, it also found that heavy glass bottles have higher environmental impacts than single-use PET bottles if the distance to refill them was more than 150km.

Granted, you’re unlikely ever to find yourself more than 150km from the nearest drinking tap. But this highlights the importance of considering how a product will be used, as well as what it is made of.

What are the reusable options?

Metal bottles are among the most durable, but also require lots of resources to make.
Flickr CC

In 2011, we investigated and compared the life cycles of typical aluminium, steel and polypropylene plastic reusable bottles.

Steel and aluminium options shared the highest environmental impacts from materials and production, due to material and production intensity, combined with the higher mass of the metal bottles, for the same number of uses among the options. The polypropylene bottle performed the best.

Polypropylene bottles are also arguably better suited to our lifestyles. They are lighter and more flexible than glass or metal, making them easier to take to the gym, the office, or out and about.

The flip side of this, however, is that metal and glass bottles may be more robust and last longer, so their impacts may be diluted with prolonged use – as long as you don’t lose them or replace them too soon.

Health considerations are an important factor for many people too, especially in light of new research about the presence of plastic particles in drinking water.

Other considerations aside, is may even be best to simply buy a single-use PET plastic water bottle and then reuse it a bunch of times. They are lighter than most purpose-designed reusable bottles, but still long-lasting. And when they do come to the end of their useful life, they are more easily recycled than many other types of plastic.

Sure, you won’t look very aspirational, but depending on how many uses you get (as you approach the same number of uses as other options), you could be doing your bit for the environment.

Maintaining reusable options

There are a few things to bear in mind to ensure that reusable bottles produce as little waste as possible.

  1. Refill from the tap, as opposed to using water coolers or other bottled water that can come from many kilometres away, requiring packaging and distribution. Unsurprisingly, tap water has the lowest environmental impacts of all the options.

  2. Clean your bottle thoroughly, to keep it hygienic for longer and avoid having to replace grotty bottles. While cleaning does add to the environmental impact, this effect is minor in comparison to the material impacts of buying new bottles – as we have confirmed in the case of reusable coffee cups.

Read more:
Sustainable shopping: how to stop your bathers flooding the oceans with plastic

The verdict

To reduce your environmental impacts of a drink of water, reusing a bottle, whether a designer bottle or a single-use bottle you use time and again, makes the most sense from a life-cycle, waste and litter perspective.

The maintenance of your reusable container is also key, to make sure you get as many uses as you can out of it, even if you create minor additional environmental impacts to do so.

The ConversationUltimately, drinking directly from a tap or water fountain is an even better shout, if you have that option. Apart from the benefit of staying hydrated, you will reduce your impacts on our planet.

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Simon Lockrey, Research Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.