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City of Freiburg Has a Brilliant Alternative to Disposable Coffee Cups

How often have you found yourself needing a coffee on the run, yet without a reusable mug? Does it prevent you from ordering that coffee? Unless you're Bea Johnson, the answer is likely "no." But what if you could get a returnable coffee mug on the spot - an affordable, convenient option that eliminates a good amount of waste?

The city of Freiburg, Germany, has come up with an excellent solution to the problem of coffee cup waste. In November 2016, it launched the Freiburg Cup, a hard plastic to-go cup with a disposable lid that's provided to businesses by the city. Customers pay a €1 deposit for the cup, which can be returned to any one of 100 stores in the city center. These stores will disinfect and reuse the cups, up to 400 times. Participating stores have an identifying green sticker in the window. The food- and dishwasher-safe cups are made in southern Germany from polypropylene and do not contain BPA. The program has been hugely successful in its first year, especially among students on the university campus. Other cities throughout Germany have expressed interest in replicating the program.

From the FAQ section of the Freiburg Cup website, having a reusable cup option is particularly relevant for Germans, who drink an impressive 300,000 cups of coffee per hour. This adds up to 2.8 billion coffee cups a year, all of which are used for an average of 13 minutes before being tossed out.

This is a problem, because disposable coffee cups cannot be recycled easily. The paper is lined with polyethylene to keep it waterproof, but this cannot be separated at standard recycling facilities. The resources required to produce such a great number of cups is staggering, as well.

"43,000 trees, 1.5 billion liters of water, 320 million kWh of electricity, 3,000 tons of crude oil. Disposable cups turn into garbage after a short use, and this results in 40,000 tons of residual waste nationwide. The cups are not recycled, in many places, lying around paper cups adversely affect the city cleanliness."

If coffee companies are unwilling to make changes (as Starbucks has shown itself to be), then cities and municipalities need to come up with better solutions - especially ones that make eco-friendly decision-making as convenient as possible. The Freiburg Cup is proof that creative green alternatives do exist; its model could easily be exported elsewhere around the world.

Indeed, this is what Environment Commissioner Gerda Stuchlik hopes. The Freiburg Cups often disappear into tourists' suitcases as a cheap souvenir, a 15 percent shrinkage rate that is frustrating, but Stucklik says, "We take comfort in the fact that the idea of reducing waste is being exported to the world with every Freiburg Cup."

The most important partners of the Freiburg Cup are the operators of cafés and bakeries that sell coffee to go. Café businesses do not incur any costs, the City of Freiburg is bearing the costs for launching the system. Customers have a choice between the returnable cup and a paper cup. The cups are washed there, with defective or missing cups being replaced by the operating company. Merely the covers are disposable. After use, they are supposed to be disposed of in recycling bags. The concept offers numerous advantages for participating cafés: not only do they reduce the quantity of residue waste – they also demonstrate that they are making an active contribution to cleanliness in Freiburg. “The more people who take part, the more effective the campaign will be, both for the cafés selling coffee as well as for consumers,” sums up the Mayor, Gerda Stuchlik.

Sources: TreeHugger, Remondis Aktuell

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