reuseable mug

Reusable cup schemes

19 Apr 23

From hot drinks on the go to beers at gigs, there is much scope for a variety of businesses to think about introducing returnable and reusable cups as a service for their customers.

In Scotland, we use about 200 million single-use beverage cups every year.  That’s a lot of waste ending up in landfill or even worse, littering our streets.  

Coffee-on-the-go is huge part of our culture:  who doesn’t love a latte on a cold frosty morning while waiting for the train?  And many of us in our efforts to be environmentally friendly, have become accustomed to remembering our reusable cup, along with our reusable shopping bags and water bottle.  With our busy lives, if we forget our reusable cup, we can always reach for a takeaway cup at the counter. One that often cannot be recycled due to being made of composite materials.  

And so here enters a gap in the market.  Many coffee shops sell reusable cups to keep, another one to stack up in the back of the cupboard. Customers don’t need another reusable cup to clutter up their lives. What if they could just borrow a cup instead? Pay a deposit to borrow the cup and then return it at a later date.   

This sounds like a great business idea. What’s more, earlier research we conducted around the single-use plastics ban showed that 77% of people in Scotland are concerned by the amount of single-use packaging and items we use, indicating that reusable packaging schemes could be an attractive alternative to many.

Putting “returning reusable cups” schemes into motion

Zero Waste Scotland is supporting trials of reusable cup takeback schemes with businesses in Scotland as part of its wider Ditching Disposables project.  

A reusable scheme for cups allows customers to pay a small deposit when purchasing their drink that will be refunded to them when they return their reusable cup, so it can be washed and used again.   

There are a range of existing reusable cup schemes operating in Scotland. The schemes can be categorised as  

  • a cup rental service operated by a third party
  • an in-house scheme run independently by a hospitality business.

The common thread running through each is that they charge a small deposit to the customer, which is reimbursed once the cup is returned for reuse.

Policy landscape on cups

As part of the ban on certain single-use plastics in Scotland which was introduced in June 2022, the manufacture and supply of cups made from expanded polystyrene and their lids is now unlawful.   

Future policy measures proposed include charging for single-use drinking cups which evidence has shown may shift more people towards reusable alternatives.  

Offering a return service for reusable cups is an action that has been highlighted as a key way to tackle consumption of single use cups by the Scottish Government’s Expert Panel on Environmental Charging and Other Measures (EPECOM).    

Some businesses are opting to get ahead of the curve and put into practice proactive measures to address consumption reduction of single-use cups not only due to these potential future policy measures, but also because its advantageous to do so.  

Advantages of returning reusable cups schemes

  • Builds a relationship with customers, incentivising them to return with their cup on a future visit
  • Shows customers your business is willing to try alternative operating model to tackle the climate emergency 
  • Reduces the cost of having to buy stocks of single-use cups
  • The cost of the deposit is designed to cover the cost of the cup, allowing for non-returned cups to be replaced 

Examples of reusable cups schemes already in operation

Zero Waste Scotland has worked with businesses directly to implement reusable cups schemes as part of the overall Ditching Disposables project which also included interventions covering takeaway containers, sauce sachets and napkins.   

There are also other examples of reusable cup schemes operating in Scotland and further afield, which we can refer to for guidance.