Disposable cups in Leuven: a row from Leuven to Switzerland

Disposable cups: a queue from Leuven to Switzerland?

Disposable cups are very convenient: you can take them with you quickly, they are cheap, you never have to wash them and you can put them anywhere (at least in the dustbin, we hope). Plus, they're made of cardboard which makes them recyclable, right?

Unfortunately, the latter is not obvious because almost all disposable cups contain a small plastic layer to make them waterproof. Separating the plastic from the cardboard is very difficult and can only be done in special recycling facilities, and on condition that the coffee cups are collected separately. In practice, this means that almost all disposable cups that end up in rubbish bins in Belgium are burned as residual waste. And this is not to mention the many disposable cups that end up as litter in the street, in nature or in the sea. Research from the United Kingdom has revealed that - although most disposable cups are recyclable - less than 0.25% of all disposable cups are actually recycled (House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups, 2019).

Although progress can certainly be made in the field of recycling, it remains a drop in the ocean. To make real progress, we need to focus on reuse within a closed system.

An important question you are probably asking yourself now: Is that one disposable cup that I use every so often really such a big problem, there aren't that many in a year?

Let's quickly calculate together how many coffee cups are used in Leuven on a yearly basis. There are four major distributors of disposable coffee cups in Leuven: Specialty coffee bars, chains (Starbucks, Panos,...), educational institutions and finally companies. The latter we leave aside for now because we do not have reliable data.

Specialty coffee bars

A specialty coffee bar sells around 50 takeaway coffees every day. Leuven has about 30 specialty bars, which brings us to a weekly consumption of about 9,000 cups (assuming that each bar is open 6 days a week).


Leuven has about ten branches of fast food and coffee chains. It is difficult to estimate the number of takeaway coffees that are sold here. For this calculation we assume a conservative average of 200 coffee cups per day per branch. For the ten establishments together this leads to a weekly consumption of 12,000 cups.

Educational institutions

Leuven is one of the student cities par excellence. It should come as no surprise that the students, who number over 50,000, drink a lot of coffee. Many students drink coffee on campus or in the library. According to data at our disposal, in a library with a capacity of 500 study places, about 10,000 cardboard coffee cups are used per week. In a busy block period this number can rise to 18,000. We do not have extensive figures for all libraries, so we will have to make another estimate. We assume that in Leuven there are approximately 3,000 study places for students, which brings us to 60,000 cups per week. The coffees consumed in student restaurants, auditoriums or by staff members are not included.

If we add up all these figures, we come to the conclusion that, according to our conservative estimate, more than 4 million cardboard coffee cups are thrown away in Leuven every year! If we put all these cups in a row, we have a string of 400 km long. In other words, the distance between Leuven and Switzerland. Isn't that amazing?

We were amazed and hope that we have shown that the problem is much bigger than people think. When you see these figures, you can hardly keep saying: 'but my cups don't make that much of a difference, do they? Together, with a system like Quppa, we can reduce these disposable cups to an absolute minimum and hopefully one day even eliminate them completely.

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