Reusable coffee cup discounts are not sustainable

'Giving a 50¢ discount to customers who bring a reusable cup is a noble idea in theory.'
'Giving a 50¢ discount to customers who bring a reusable cup is a noble idea in theory.' Photo: Albert Comper


Australia's coffee culture is world-renowned, and rightly so. Recent years have seen a huge focus on sustainability and the environment – which is awesome and something we fully support at The Little Marionette – but who should be footing the bill for this in a low-margin industry?

I remember paying about $3 for a coffee in Balmain in 2000. Eighteen years down the track there has been less than 10 per cent growth in the price of coffee at many cafes while the cost of goods sold has increased about 400 per cent. The profit has been sucked out of the sector so it's important that initiatives to reduce waste and increase sustainability reward the businesses adopting responsible practices.

The coffee-drinking public are becoming more particular about what they drink, and as a fully-fledged coffee nerd I love this. However, the reality of this is that we need to use more expensive milk and pay more for biodegradable cups. The industry is now using about 24 grams of coffee per basket where we used to use seven grams to cater for Australia's espresso habits. There is also an increased worldwide demand for coffee, which increases the price of beans. Roasters need to absorb these price rises to stay competitive.

Giving a 50¢ discount to customers who bring a reusable cup is a noble idea in theory, but disposable cups only cost about 14¢ to 16¢. Either the price of coffee needs to be raised across the board to account for this or we erode already slim profits to remain competitive.

Foil and plastic coffee pods are non-compostable.
Foil and plastic coffee pods are non-compostable. 

We still wholeheartedly encourage the use of reusable cups and give away a free coffee with each reusable cup we sell. Along with donations to sustainability charities, this cuts our margin on the cup but helps to combat the waste issue.

Coffee pod machines are also terrible for the environment and something that we think many pod customers aren't aware of. Not only are the foil and plastic pods non-compostable and a huge creator of waste, the machines themselves are essentially disposable. It's cheaper and easier to buy a new one when something goes wrong. Potential environmentally friendly solutions are cardboard or bagasse (sugar cane pulp) pods but these are yet to be proven effective.

Coffee is a commodity that is traded globally in a highly competitive market. At The Little Marionette we love the industry and do everything we can to minimise our impact on the environment and the sustainability of the supply chain that gets the product to us.

To address waste issues more permanently I would like to see a holistic approach by the industry rather than gimmicks focused on convenience or cost.

If we are serious about being environmentally friendly, consumers and providers of coffee both need to accept that this comes at a higher price to keep the industry sustainable.

Ed Cutcliffe is the founder of Sydney-based specialty coffee roasters The Little Marionette, which also has operations in New York and London.