Reusable Coffee Cup Trial Launches at Gatwick Airport

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©. Hubbub (used with permission)

Travellers can take a reusable cup and drop it off at a 'cup check-in point' before boarding a flight.

A trial has launched today at Gatwick Airport, the second largest in the United Kingdom, where customers at Starbucks now have the option to take a reusable cup and leave it at a drop-off point elsewhere in the airport, or pay 5p for a disposable cup.

The idea behind the trial is that many people who normally use reusable cups do not take them on trips because they're bulky and annoying to pack. An airport is a "manageable closed-loop setting" that incentivizes travellers to leave cups behind and makes it easy for airport staff to collect for cleaning and reuse.

The trial has been organized by Hubbub, the same environmental charity that's behind a number of plastic reduction and recycling initiatives in the UK. Its work is funded in large part by Starbucks' latte levies. Regarding the airport trial, which will last for one month, Hubbub CEO and co-founder Trewin Restorick said,

"We know people care about waste, but it’s often hard to do the right thing when travelling. We want to find out whether people will get onboard with reusing cups, if we make it easy and convenient. The airport is the ideal environment to trial a reusable cup scheme as it has the potential to reduce large volumes of paper cup waste."

An estimated 7 million cups are used at Gatwick airport every year. Its recycling rate is higher than the national average, with a press release claiming that 5.3 million of these get recycled, but that's a small proportion of the 2.5 billion cups that are used and mostly go to landfill in the UK annually.

The Guardian reports that 2,000 reusable Starbucks cups will be put into circulation throughout the South Terminal. "If only 250 customers opted for a reusable cup each day, for example, more than 7,000 paper cups could be saved in one month." There will be numerous drop-off points, or 'Cup Check-ins', throughout the airport for people to return their cups, including right before boarding.

reusable cup return sign

© Hubbub (used with permission)

While I'm all in favor of phasing out disposables, I do find it amusing that such a fuss is being made over a coffee shop offering a reusable cup when, in fact, they always have. It's called a ceramic mug and it's available for free to anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to sip their coffee on the spot before rushing off to their next destination.

So, really, what's novel about this story is not the production and distribution of 2,000 Starbucks-branded reusable cups, but the fact that drop-off points are being offered throughout the airport. We've seen similar models implemented in cities in Germany and Colorado, where cups can be checked out of a store, almost like a library book, and dropped off elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see how the Gatwick trial works out. I'd love to see it turn into an airport-wide initiative, where every food vendor offers reusables that are returned to shared drop-off points, rather than making this all about Starbucks.