take away coffee cup

Goodbye to the take-away cup

Back in April 2017 I was given a “completely compostable” disposable cup in order to try some batch brew. But how “compostable” is “completely compostable” really? It needed to be tested! And so, once it was empty, the cup was placed into a worm composting bin and left to see how long it took to compost.

Each week I took a photograph of the cup to see how it was composting, the results of which were made into the film below. How long did it take? You can watch the film or scroll past to find out more:

Did it compost?

110 weeks! That is more than two years in the worm bin. Is that how long you thought it would take? When things are marked “compostable”, even when they are marked with a regulatory compostable mark like EN13432 or ASTM6400, this usually means the item is compostable only in an industrial setting. Industrial composting facilities are kept at 58C, very far from the conditions found in a London based worm bin (more details here) or indeed from most people’s idea of a compost bin.

The OK Vincotte label is for items that are supposed to be genuinely “home” compostable. Will this bag from Amoret coffee compost in the worm bin? It is in there now but as we are in winter, the worms have slowed down to such an extent that it would not be fair to start a new #willitcompost just yet.

What about defining labels for a genuine “home” composting environment? The problem here is that a worm composting bin in London will be very different from a more conventional compost heap in a tropical country. How can you define one set of conditions that are universally applicable? One label that tries is “OK Vincotte” but it seems quite rare and indeed I have only seen this once ‘in the wild’: on bags of Amoret roasted coffee (see picture). Have you spotted them anywhere else?

The conclusion from all this? We all need to think about how we each can live more simply and sustainably. Perhaps a re-usable cup will be part of the way that you do this. (Some of them are reviewed by Brian’s coffeespot linked here). Or maybe you’ll opt to drink your coffee to-stay. Whatever else it involves though, it can’t be by putting each “compostable” take-away coffee cup we consume in a worm composting bin in London or imagining that they will somehow compost in a landfill!

Do let me know what you are doing to address the issues of your own coffee waste either in the comments below, on Twitter or over on Facebook. I look forward to continuing the discussion there.

Coffee cup recycling

a take away cup

It is recyclable, but not easily so.

That old subject again, the recyclability of take-away coffee cups. But before you groan about our disposable culture, there has recently been some great news, at least as far as the university sector is concerned. Regular readers may know of the Bean Thinking list of Top UK Universities for Coffee Cup Recycling. You may also be aware of just how short that list has been. Now though, there are signs of change. Perhaps because it is the start of the academic year, several universities including Oxford Brookes and the University of Bedfordshire have announced new schemes for recycling their cups with Simply Cups.

Owing to the way the cups are made it is extremely difficult to recycle them; although they are technically recyclable, very few companies have the capabilities. Consequently, the majority of the cups that we use for our take-away are just thrown-away, taking many decades to break down.

compostable, coffee cup, disposable culture

Using compostables can be a step in the right direction.

It is often our universities that do the research showing just how environmentally damaging our disposable culture can be. Nonetheless many university catering departments continue to serve coffee in “disposable” cups without putting in place any scheme to recycle them. Over a year ago I started a list of the UK’s top universities for coffee cup recycling. It would be thought that it should be extremely easy to be listed here. To be listed, all a university has to do is take a responsible attitude to it’s take away coffee cup use. Preferably, they would discourage take-away coffee cup use altogether. As Loughborough University recognises, slowing down, talking with colleagues over a stay-in (washable cup) coffee can be far more productive than scurrying away with your non-degradable cup.

However, often we feel that we don’t have time to sit down for a coffee and need to take-away. At this point, to be listed on the guide, all that a university would have to do is either invest in compostable cups (despite the caveats*, this is at least a step in the right direction) or institute a scheme to collect and recycle their coffee cups (as has been done at the University of Bath, Bedfordshire, Kent, Loughborough, Manchester Metropoliton and  Oxford Brookes University).

As may be apparent from the fact that the universities can be listed within this short article, the current list is woefully short. Even after the recent good news from Oxford Brookes and the University of Bedfordshire. Most universities, including my own are sadly still not on it. So, what can you do if your university is not listed here?

  1. If you think it should be listed but hasn’t been it is very highly likely that I just don’t know about it yet, please let me know by contacting me through email, Twitter or Facebook.
  2. If your university is doing very little to discourage disposable cup use: Write to the catering department and waste management department of your university to let them know your concerns. When writing, be aware of the fact that they have probably considered this problem before and are aware of the issues but have concerns/limitations that have prevented them from implementing a policy. Consumer pressure can help to change their minds but there may be (what appear to them to be) valid reasons that they have not yet done so.
  3. Use a re-usable cup. Even if your university does not charge extra for using a disposable cup/give a discount for using a re-usable (thereby encouraging the use of re-usables), systemic change starts with individuals. Be the start of the change you want to see. You can find a review of various re-usable coffee cups here.
  4. Refuse to buy your stay-in coffee if you are served it in a take-away cup. Good coffee deserves to be enjoyed in appropriate cups and poor coffee should be avoided anyway.

You can find the list of the UK’s top universities for responsible take-away coffee cup use here.


*The word ‘compostable’ does not necessarily mean that it will compost in a home-composting environment. For this situation to be preferable to the ordinary disposable cup, it would be necessary to have some form of industrial composting facility in place.

Does nature hate a vacuum?

The problem tea pot

The problem teapot

A few weeks ago, while having lunch with colleagues, one of them was complaining about his problems with his morning tea. So desperate he was to get his cup, he kept tipping the teapot to steeper and steeper angles in an attempt to increase the rate of pouring. Unfortunately, when he did so, the flow out of the spout became chaotic and, rather than having a nice cup of tea, he had a mess on the table. Another colleague suggested (sensibly) that it was a problem with the air-hole at the top of the teapot, not enough air was getting into the pot to enable the tea to flow smoothly out. In fact, my colleague’s tea pot problem turned out to have a different cause that will be featured in the Daily Grind in a few weeks. However, it did get me thinking about the purpose of the air hole in take-away coffee cups.

On the lid of a take-away cup are two holes. One, for drinking from while in a rush to get from A to B, the other, a very small air inlet hole that allows the coffee to flow nicely from the drinking hole. The requirement for such an air inlet has been known for millenia, however it was not understood why it was needed. Traditionally it was explained by saying that “nature abhors a vacuum”, the idea being that the coffee could not leave the cup because if it did so it would leave a vacuum which nature ‘does not allow’.

Take-away cup, plastic lid, equalisation of air pressure

The lid of a take-away cup has two holes. One for drinking from, the other to let air in.

An immediate problem with such an argument is that it implies that coffee has a will; nature ‘does not want’ a vacuum. Indeed for Rene Descartes (of “I think therefore I am” fame) this was a key problem with the traditional explanation. Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650, although for twenty years before that he had lived in Holland. For Europeans, the Dutch were fairly fast off the mark in terms of the introduction of coffee into their society. They had managed to get hold of a coffee plant in 1616 but only started properly growing coffee for themselves (in Ceylon!) in 1658, a few years after Descartes’ death. It is therefore unlikely that Descartes ever had the opportunity to try much coffee. Instead, when Descartes thought about the importance of air holes, the example that he used was a wine cask. In ‘The World‘, written in about 1632 he states “When the wine in a cask does not flow from the bottom opening because the top is completely closed, it is improper to say, as they ordinarily do, that this takes place through ‘fear of a vacuum’. We are well aware that the wine has no mind to fear anything; and even if it did, I do not know for what reason it could be apprehensive of this vacuum…”

Oranda, fish, Descartes water fish example, air pressure equalisation

The space behind a swimming fish is immediately filled with water as the fish moves forward.

For Descartes, the reason that an air hole was needed in the wine cask was not because nature hated a vacuum but because, on the contrary, nature was completely ‘full’ of matter. Whether that matter was wine, air or the material that made up the barrel, the world was full of ‘stuff’, meaning that if wine came out of the cask the air that it displaced had to go somewhere. Having nowhere else in the universe to go, this displaced air would have to go into the region of the cask that the wine had just vacated. Descartes compared this movement of air into the top of the cask to the displacement of water by fish as they swam through water. We may not notice the water in front of the fish moving to the back as the fish swims through the water but we know that the water must fill the empty space left by the moving fish. In the same way we do not perceive the air to flow from the outlet of the wine cask to the top of the barrel, but we know that it must (because, Descartes thought, it had nowhere else that it could go).

This explanation had far reaching consequences for Descartes world view. He could explain gravity and the motion of the planets as a consequence of the planets moving in a giant vortex of a substance around the Sun. The image of the solar system as a giant cup of coffee being stirred is one that the Daily Grind is sure to return to at some point. For the moment though, we need to step back and think. We know that the universe is not ‘full’ in the sense meant by Descartes and so this part of his explanation must be wrong, but why is it that blocking the air inlet hole stops the flow of water out of the cup?

coffee cup science, coffeecupscience, everydayphysics

Whether coffee leaves the cup or not depends on a balance of forces

Think about the schematic shown here. Gravity is pulling on the mass of coffee in the cup through the drinking hole. Air pressure is acting against this pull, pushing the coffee back into the cup (if you ever wanted a demonstration of how powerful air pressure can be, try sealing an empty water bottle before coming down a mountain or at the start of the descent in a plane). There is also air pressure inside the cup acting downwards on the coffee. With the air hole open, this air pressure is fairly equal to that outside of the cup. The inside air pressure cancels the outside air pressure, gravity wins and the coffee comes out. Imagine now closing the air hole. No air can get into the cup so, after a little coffee leaves, the air pressure inside the cup drops to less than the air pressure outside of the cup. This time, the air pressure outside the cup pushes the coffee back into the cup more than gravity pulls it out and the coffee stays in the cup. Can we test this explanation? One way to test the theory would be to somehow change the pressure inside the cup. Using two identical cups (which I got from the very friendly people with good coffee at Iris and June), the video below shows two experiments. In the first, both cups are filled with the same amount of cold ‘coffee’ (no coffee is ever wasted in these videos, dregs are recycled). The second experiment shows one cup holding cold coffee, one holding steaming coffee. Why might these experiments support the theory that it is air pressure that keeps the coffee in? Perhaps you can think of better experiments, or improvements to this one, let me know in the comments section below, but most of all, enjoy your coffee while you do so.

(note that the cups had got a bit water damaged through practise runs before filming. Note also that for this experiment to be meaningful, you would need to repeat the measurements many times so that you can build up a statistical picture, but that would make the video quite boring).