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Study says policy makers need to make proper disposal of compostable cups easier

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, new research has found.

A study badged Coffee On The Run: Cultural and Institutional Factors in Waste Behaviours, by a group of Australian academics, has 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. 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.

Why imitation works…

The study interviewed consumers, café owners and policy makers in South Australia, and observed customer behaviour in cafes for around 50 hours. One finding became very clear: people mimic each other. Customers consistently told researchers 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:

It appears that, as more consumers start using reusable coffee cups, the practice becomes ever more socially acceptable.

According to a customer, “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.”

…and discounts don’t

Although many cafe owners offer discounts to customers who bring in their own reusable cups, the findings reveal these are ineffective in changing consumer behaviour.

A cafe owner told researchers 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,” she said.

Behavioural psychological literature reports that 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.

Councils need to pivot

Customers often feel uncertain about how and where to dispose them. A council officer told researchers, “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.”

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.