Birmingham student wins funding to kick-start new reusable coffee cup initiative

reusable coffee cups

PhD student Laurie Duncan, recently entered Unilever's "Our Planet, Our Future" competition and beat 262 other entries to secure funding for his initiave looking at eliminating single use coffee cups. Read more about Laurie and what inspired him to start the initiative and enter the competition. 

Laurie Duncan completed his undergraduate degree at Warwick in summer 2020. He used the Warwick Cup scheme while they ran their trial in February. Thinking it was such a great idea, when he came to Birmingham to study for a PhD in Energy Policy he wanted to try and start a similar scheme.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee reported in 2018 that 2.5 billion paper cups are thrown away each year in the UK. The plastic lining which makes them watertight means they require specialist processing to be recycled. As a result, less than 0.25% (1 in 400) are recycled, with the rest going into general waste or being littered. At the university, more than 880,000 cups were thrown away in 2017.

A cup return scheme aims to remove the need for single-use cups. Drinks are sold in reusable plastic cups instead of disposable paper ones. Once they have finished their drinks, customers can drop off their cups at one of several collection bins spread around the campus. Every day a group of student volunteers take all the used cups to be cleaned in commercial dishwashers. They are then returned to cafés, designed to go through this cycle 1000 times. As they are made of polypropylene, when they are worn out or damaged they are very easily recyclable and can go in mixed recycling bins.

Laurie started out by presenting the idea at the Student Sustainability Symposium, run by Plastic-Free UoB and Birmingham Energy Society. The talk had a very positive response, and some of the attendees agreed to meet to discuss the next steps.

Laurie said “I ran a short survey to find out what people across the university thought of the idea, thinking that 100 responses would be optimistic - after just five days there were 485 responses! The feedback was overwhelmingly in favour of a cup return scheme, and highlighted the most important elements - things like demonstrating a positive environmental impact, and lots of collection points widely spread across campus. One of the founders of a similar scheme, Shrewsbury Cup, saw the survey and has kindly offered some advice on how to make Birmingham Cup successful.”

“I arranged a meeting in December with the University's Head of Sustainability, as well as representatives from Catering, Retail and Environmental Services. They supported the idea and have agreed to meet again in the future to discuss more details of running a trial. Their priority was to allow customer-owned reusable cups in cafés on campus again, after concerns around COVID-19 led to all drinks being served in disposable cups. This has now happened, which is great progress, but before the pandemic only one third of drinks were sold in reusable cups. A cup return scheme can work alongside reusables to completely eradicate single-use coffee cups from the University of Birmingham.”

“I'm very grateful for all the help and advice I've had so far, from Warwick Cup, Plastic-Free UoB, and everyone that completed the survey. I am working with a cup supplier so hopefully within the next few months I will be looking to recruit some volunteers to help run the trial. Anyone can contact us via email at”

View Laurie's winning submission for his initiative. 


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