German Rail Operator Switches to Reusable Cups and Plates to Curb Waste

Deutsche Bahn will now serve coffee in real porcelain mugs.

DB train

Adam Berry / Stringer / Getty Images

Next year, if you're riding a train in Germany, you will be able to get your food and drink in reusable dishes. Deutsche Bahn, the country's main rail operator, issued a statement saying that travelers would be able to choose a "high-quality porcelain or glass" option when ordering food and drink on its intercity and high-speed services. 

Reusable cups, plates, and bowls will be offered to customers free of charge, with no deposit required. Single-use plates and cups made from plastic and cardboard can still be requested if a person prefers them, but the move toward reusables is part of a broader national push to reduce food packaging waste. Starting January 1, 2023, Germany is requiring all restaurants to use reusable packaging for takeout food products, while keeping disposables on hand for special requests.

Deutsche Bahn points out that a disposable cup has an average lifespan of just 15 minutes before it's thrown away. From its website:

"This generates an unimaginable amount of waste every day: according to the German environmental association Deutsche Umwelthilfe, the daily figure in Germany is in the region of 7.6 million cups. That's 320,000 cups every hour. Not only does their production require tens of thousands of metric tons of wood and billions of liters of water, it also often leads to road and environmental pollution."

Reusable cups, by contrast, reduce waste and save wood, energy, and water. The ones used by DB are also 100% recyclable when they too reach the end of their lives. DB says that replacing a disposable cup with a reusable one saves 21 grams of CO2 and 430 mL (14.5 ounces) of water.

As for washing all those reusable cups and dishes, DB doesn't offer much information beyond saying that it considers "the ecological impact of the detergents that we use in the kitchens of our staff restaurants" and only buys products that are "certified in line with the EU's Ecolabel or Nordic Swan standards." 

It's clear that Deutsche Bahn takes its environmental commitments seriously. Since March, 50% of its on-board menu has been vegan or vegetarian. The delicious-sounding options include vegetable curry with basamati rice, plant-based chicken with a tomato and lemon sauce, vegetable bolognese, and dishes that feature seasonal ingredients such as asparagus, pumpkin, and chanterelles.

Michael Peterson, head of passenger services, said, "Deutsche Bahn is driving forward its green transformation in onboard catering. With the introduction of porcelain and glass in the on-board bistro has a reusable variant, we not only offer our guests a long-lasting and sustainable alternative to disposable packaging, but also create quality enjoyment just like at home."

There is no doubt that drinking coffee out of a porcelain mug is a more pleasurable experience than quaffing it from a paper or Styrofoam cup, as is eating food from real plates. It is refreshing to see the rail operator taking this step toward reducing disposables and hopefully other leaders in industry leaders will do the same.

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