While there are signs things may be improving – for example the coffee chain Pret is rolling out a coffee cup recycling scheme in its stores – overall, the majority of takeaway coffee cups still end up as waste. While we think of them as cardboard, a plastic coating complicates the reprocessing. At the same time, a survey last year estimated that Brits drink almost 100 million cups of coffee per day. That's a lot of coffee. And a lot of cups.
One simple way to reduce your footprint is to buy a reusable coffee mug (or travel mug – the same thing by a different name). These tend to cost between £5 and £20, and come in a frankly astonishing range of materials, shapes and sizes. Quite often – though certainly not always – the coffee tastes better than in the cardboard-plastic cups. So there's no excuse.
Equipping yourself with a reusable travel mug can also save you money in the long term. Last year, the Government began to mull the prospect of a 'latte levy', a 25p tax on disposable coffee cup. That may not have been implemented, but several outlets have already instigated their own incentives.
At Pret and Paul, for example, if you bring a disposable coffee cup, you'll save 50p. At Starbucks and Costa, the figure is 25p. Greggs will slash 20p, while Caffe Nero will double loyalty stamps. None beat Waitrose, however, who offer free coffee to members who bring their own cup.
"This year, we have witnessed a much greater awareness of what disposable coffee cup waste looks like, and what it means for our planet," says Sam Langdon, head of coffee at Caravan Coffee Roasters. "The polyethylene liner that binds most cardboard coffee cups means they cannot physically be recycled. With cafes and coffee shops taking ownership and offering financial incentives to their customers, alongside more of a focus on sustainability and our planet in the media, it's something as consumers we feel we can do very easily, with big results."
Since Caravan began offering a 50p discount to customers with reusable cups, Langdon has noticed a sharp increase in people using them.
So, what's the best reusable travel mug to buy? There's a wide variety out there – but broadly, they fall into two main categories: those that offer thermal linings, thus keeping your coffee hot for hours; and those that don't, so the coffee must be consumed fairly quickly, just like you would with a regular mug or disposable cup. The latter, as you can probably guess, tends to be cheaper – and there's an argument that they're easier to drink from, because the coffee doesn't stay boiling hot.
For testing, I focused on coffee, but you can of course use them all for tea or whatever hot drink oils your wheels.
Here's what I found when reviewing reusable coffee cups, starting with my favourites...
1. Global WAKEcup bamboo coffee mug, 280ml
Why we like it: Looks great, comfortable to hold, and no gimmicks
I'll get the vain stuff out of the way first: I really like how this cup looks. The rustic woody bamboo (technically not a wood, but it looks very much like wood); the handle; the steel bottom. It all looks very 'camping with the family in Snowdonia circa 1999'; a reminder of a far simpler time. Except, come to think of it, all those camping cups used to be plastic.
Anyway, this is a no-nonsense coffee mug that does the simple things well. It's far lighter than many other travel mugs I tested; and unlike most you'll find, it comes with a handle.
The mug itself has a stainless steel lining that helps keep your drink hot for a long time – not quite as long as the thermal options (see below), but it's about the size of a regular household mug, so it's not the type of mug that you fill up in the morning and sip throughout the day. As an espresso drinker, I found it ideal, as some coffee cups are so big you have to tip your head back to actually get any drink.
Usefully, the stainless steel/bamboo combination seems to prevent the mug overheating, so even if holding by the body rather than handle you won't burn your palm (surprisingly, many travel mug manufacturers haven't quite grasped the importance of not burning yourself).
The lid is the only plastic component, though it's BPA-free (a chemical linked to several health issues), and it feels sturdy and durable. You can easily close it – ideal for when walking in a hurry to avoid spillage. When open, there's a small and a big gap to drink from depending on how much coffee you want to take in.
Importantly, there was no taste of steel or plastic whatsoever. Sam Langdon cites this fact, and the low environmental impact of bamboo, as reasons for the combination of materials being the best for reusable coffee cups.
As an added bonus, WAKECup donate a percentage of each sale of the WAKEcup to the Marine Conservation Society.
Overall, there's actually rather little to shout about with this cup – and that's just why I like it. It's light; it holds enough for a regular-sized coffee; it looks nice; and it doesn't burn you.
2. rCUP leakproof travel cup, 340ml
Why we like it: Nice design and eco credentials
Apparently, this was the first reusable coffee cup made from old paper coffee cups, which gives it a nice touch of cyclicity. It's not 100pc old coffee cups, mind (the inner lining is BPA-free plastic). But it's a start.
A big boast is that it's completely leek proof, something that cannot be said of all coffee cups. This is thanks to a unique 'push open push close' lid. Essentially, when the lid is pushed down, you can drink. When up, it's completely sealed, so no smelly wet patches in your rucksack.
The lid has another standout feature, one I really liked: it offers 360° drinking: wherever you place your mouth around lid, you can drink. While a tad gimmicky (it isn't that hard to find the hole through which to drink on regular lids), it does make it more similar to a normal mug. Apparently the 360° drinking improves flavour, because more aroma is released, though only a coffee geek with extremely astute taste buds would notice the differenc.
The mug is thermally insulated, keeping coffee warm for up to 90 minutes, more than enough time to get through your morning latte. The sides do warm up, but don't get overly hot like many others, and holding it is never uncomfortable; it'll even warm your cockles on a cold wintry morning. It's dishwasher friendly, making it more hygienic. There's a 10-year guarantee on the product, and if you don't like it, it's fully recyclable.
3. Thermos Stainless King travel tumbler, 470ml
Why we like it: Keeps your coffee piping hot
Thermal coffee mugs offer a whole different kettle of fish to regular travel cups. Namely, they keep your coffee hot for hours, rather than forcing you to drink it within a few minutes. This has one huge benefit: you can fill up at home in the morning and sip throughout the day, without spending extra cash at coffee shops.
But there's also a key flaw: if you're like me, you'll burn your lips and tongue. A lot. I tried to sip the coffee two hours after pouring and burnt myself, much to the amusement of my colleagues (at least that shows the Thermos, which is said to retain heat for seven hours, works). I'd suggest pouring the liquid into a normal mug, or removing the lid briefly to cool the drink down, if you don't want scalded lips.
As an espresso drinker, there's not much point in getting one of these, as my coffee tends to disappear within two sips and fits perfectly in a much smaller and lighter cup. However, if you're the kind of person who likes to drink copious amounts of coffee (or tea) throughout the day, I'd say the Thermos travel tumbler is ideal. (In fact, if you are a tea drinker, this mug is more than ideal. Why? Because there's a little hook inside from which to hang your tea bag. Very neat.)
The Thermos fits almost half a litre of drink. That's two regular lattes to you and me. You can also flick a switch on the lid between open and close, which prevents leaks.
Despite being rather large, the bottom is thin and should fit any car cup holder. I quite like it aesthetically – it looks rather like a camera lens. Add that to the capacity, and the ability to keep liquid hot for seven hours, and the Thermos starts to look like a very good option indeed for coffee nuts.
If black isn't your thing, there are a whole host of colours available online.
Best of the rest
While these reusable coffee cups didn't quite make the top grade, they have their merits and are worth considering.
4. KeepCup Changemakers brew cork Turbine travel mug, 12oz
One of the classic travel mug designs, one that instantly springs to mind when many think of reusable coffee cups, is the KeepCup. The cup is made of glass (a good insulator) and has a cork grip, which I found comfortable to hold. I liked that it was see-through, meaning I could always know exactly how much I was about to drink or had left.
There were two minor niggles, however. Firstly, the glass gets very hot to touch when the cup is full, and the cork grip only partially alleviates this (as it's too thin to get your whole hand around). I also found the lid often took a little pressure to replace – nothing drastic, just a little annoying.
5. Ecoffee cup Kerr & Napier 8oz
The Ecoffee cup is favoured by Caravan Coffee Roasters, and it's easy to see why. It's got eco credentials as it's made of bamboo and corn starch, which seems to be pretty good at retaining heat.
The cup itself is very light, which is a big plus, and there's no flavour impact on the coffee, like you get with some others. That it's dishwasher safe is also something not to be sniffed at.
The Ecoffee cup, which I find quite stylish, comes in various sizes. I trialled the smallest 8oz option, enough for a small latte and perfect for my espressos.
My chief complaint is that the mug gets too hot to hold (with milky coffees, which tend to be cooler, this shouldn't be a problem). There is a band you can grip, but even this is a little too warm. Waiting a few minutes should do the trick, but when you're on the go that's not always possible.
6. Huskup reusable eco coffee cup, 400ml
This is the most commonly found shape of resuable travel mug: hard cup of varying material; flexible lid, often silicone or a hard plastic, with a drink hole.
The Huskup is made of rice husk (but of course), which gives it mega eco credentials, apparently. One online reviewer gave it a slightly hyperbolic "10 out of 5". Personally, I like it, I've used it for a while, and I don't really have many problems with it. But this isn't a 10 out of 5 cup, for me.
The main reason is that the body gets very, very hot (perhaps rice isn't the best heat insulator). The silicone sleeve (the ring around the cup from which to grip it), is very thin, meaning you haven't got much to grip on without overheating your palms. For me, that's no biggie – as mentioned, I drink espressos. But if you tend to go for lattes or Americanos, there's a better option out there for you. Yes, you can just wait 10 minutes or so until it has cooled down, but life's too short.
7. Laura Ashley reusable coffee cup, 250ml
A similar style of cup to the Huskup above, but made of ceramic rather than rice husk. This brings one significant downside: it's really rather heavy. Ceramic also requires significant energy use to create, so minus green points there.
The silicone lid, annoyingly flaccid, emits a slightly odd scent, which I'm sure would eventually wear off (don't try to remove it by whacking it in the dishwasher, however, as it's handwash only). Despite the smell, the flavour of the coffee isn't impacted too much.
What I do like is the design, which is very chic, ideal for the fashionistas. The ceramic also seems to be quite good at maintaining the drink's heat – my coffee remained hot after 20 minutes. If you're the sort of person who forgets they've made themselves a brew, this gives you some leeway.
Overall, it all feels a little too style over substance.
8. Klean Kanteen insulated tumbler, 473ml
Yet again, I burnt my top lip straight away when using this tumbler. For all the annoyance of a slightly achy lip, at least it proves the insulation works.
Supposedly, this cup – which I find very aesthetically pleasing – will keep hot drinks hot for four hours (I burnt my lip after 30 minutes). It can also keep drinks ice cold for 20 hours, with the Klean Kanteen boasting that you can use it for your morning coffee, afternoon smoothie and evening beer. It's pretty sturdy, if a little heavy, but hand-washing is recommended.
My one complaint is that the lid it comes with doesn't fully close, as the drinking hole is permanently open. This makes it easier to drink from (if you want to burn yourself), but less good for transporting, which to me seems the whole point of thermal flasks. You can get a lid that does close, but at an additional cost.
9. Stojo collapsible cup, 355ml
A pretty fun and innovative cup that ultimately feels a bit gimmicky.
Like when you were younger and would stamp on soft drink can to squash it, the Stojo cup collapses, with the cup's body fitting into the lid. Useful if you don't have much bag space.
The fact you can block the drinking hole means it also won't leak when you do stash it in your briefcase.
For me, however, it didn't add all that much to the drinking experience. The collapsible element means it's made of a flabby silicone, which has to be gripped very lightly to prevent squishing. It's not hard to envisage squeezing it too hard and boiling coffee going everywhere.
10. Tefal travel mug, 360ml
Like the rCUP, the Tefal travel mug offers 360º drinking (much like an actual mug), and claims to be 100pc leak proof thanks to a push-open-and-close button. As a stainless steel thermal cup, it can keep coffee warm for four hours (cold drinks are limited to eight). Unusually among thermal flasks, it's machine washable. Unlike some, the flask doesn't change temperature to the touch like some coffee mugs.
Overall, I found this mug to be good, if nothing special – it does what it says on the tin. It lost out to the Thermos as it doesn't keep coffee hot for quite as long, and it doesn't look quite as nice.
What kind of reusable coffee cup should I go for?
In a market that has grown over the past couple of years, there are now a myriad of travel mugs available, made from all sorts of weird and wacky materials as scientists search for the most sustainable option that doesn't skimp on flavour.
It's all a bit confusing, so I asked the experts at Caravan Coffee Roasters to help me navigate. Here is what head of coffee Sam Langdon told me...
Which material makes the best reusable coffee cup, considering flavour, durability and sustainability?
Stainless steel: "Stainless steel is non-reactive, so it shouldn't impact flavour," Langdon explains. "If it's not properly insulated, however, it can cause heat loss." Well insulated thermal ones shouldn't lose any heat, but "if someone has a flask of filter coffee that is sealed and hot for eight hours, you can get an element of staling from the coffee oxidising."
What about the environment? "Stainless steel has a relatively low carbon footprint compared to glass or ceramics." It's also incredibly durable, meaning it can take a bashing and last decades. If you do encounter a problem, it's usually recyclable.
Ceramic: "Equally non-reactive, so shouldn't impact flavour," says Langdon. However, it comes with a relatively high carbon footprint (a lot of energy gets used firing it in kilns), and can be fragile. Also, ceramic isn't the best insulator. Many ceramic coffee mugs, on the other hand, do look quite nice.
Glass: Glass is very similar to ceramic, with kiln firing necessitating heavy energy use. "It's a slightly better insulator than ceramic, but it's marginal."
Hard plastics: Hard plastics are still used frequently for keep cups, though make sure you choose a BPA-free option. "Plastic can be a tremendously good insulator, has a relatively small footprint compared to glass or ceramic, but it can leach a plastic taste into the beverage the first few times it's used," Langdon warns. It's also quite cheap.
"As a society, I think we should seek to find alternative solutions to plastics, as even with recycling we see issues of ocean microplastics."
Plastic can be quite durable, but it's never recycled, only down-cycled, meaning eventually it'll reach a point where it's no longer usable.
Bamboo: "This is our preferred material," says Langdon. "We offer the Caravan-to-go cups in partnership with Ecoffee cup. It has zero impact on flavour, the raw materials for production is sustainable (bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth), and the energy cost for production is on par with plastic cups, but with a far better footprint."
How do I look after my coffee cup?
Most travel mugs I've come across are fairly sturdy things. They can be left in bags and bashed about a bit. Obviously, this is more the case with stainless steel than glass or ceramic.
The most important thing, however, is to wash your cup regularly. At home, you'd wash your mug after every use, so why not with travel cups? Earlier this year, Public Health England sent a word of warning to those getting in on the travel cup trend: wash your cup regularly, it advised, in order to prevent harmful bacteria building up.
Some of the cups I tested are dishwasher friendly, but others have to be hand washed. I'd recommend a brush for this task, with a little washing up liquid and hot water. Your cup's specs should state the best way to wash.
How much coffee should I be drinking?
Though full of caffeine, many recent studies suggest coffee might actually be rather healthy. This doesn't necessarily mean you should do like the Italians do, and down up to six espressos per day.
According to a report earlier this year in the health journal JAMA Internal Medicine, drinking coffee every day is linked to an 8pc decrease in risk of premature death.
A Korean study in 2017 suggested three to five cups a day could fight heart disease. Research from Harvard found that drinking up to six coffees per day did not heighten chances of death from cancer or heart disease. There are also reports that coffee may help fight Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.
On the other hand, consuming too much caffeine may lead to insomnia, nevousness, a quick heartbeat and muscle tremors, according to Medical News Today – not to mention more frequent trips to the toilet.