Coronavirus: Takeaways are back - and so is the waste they create

An estimated 20 million takeaway cups were kept out of landfill during the lockdown.
An estimated 20 million takeaway cups were kept out of landfill during the lockdown. Photo credit: Getty

Rachel Thomas for RNZ

New Zealanders have relished the chance to re-claim their takeaway flat whites, but at what cost to the environment?

The alert level 4 lockdown is estimated to have saved more than 20 million coffee cups going to landfill, according to figures from The Packaging Forum.

But now, disposable coffee cups are overflowing rubbish bins.

Whanganui's Annie Mackenzie was shocked to see coffee cups littering the banks of the sacred river.

"I guess it was probably because it was one of people's first opportunities to get a coffee, but the bins were unbelievably overflowing.

"It was quite nice when we were in level 4 that there was none of this rubbish and all that kinda crap."

As COVID-19 restrictions increased, major players like Starbucks and McDonald's shied away from using reusable cups and smaller retailers followed suit.

The government has now made it clear that reusables are fine so long as staff don't touch them.

Hannah Blumhardt is the co-founder of a campaign called Takeaway Throwaways, which aims to rid New Zealand of single-use fast food waste.

She said there were fears that the focus on hygiene would see people return to single-use items after COVID-19.

"With coronavirus it was almost like this knee-jerk response was just to assume that single-use disposables are safer.

"So it was really important to look at the scientific evidence and what we found is actually neither single use nor reusable is necessarily safer, it's how you deploy those systems."

She said the way to stop surface transmission with coronavirus is by sterilising a surface.

"You don't sterilise a single use disposable before you use it, but you do sterilise a reusable. So in some ways you could argue reusables are safer than single-use."

Morgan West is the owner of Wellington cafe Milk Crate - one place that's worked out "the contactless pour".

"We're getting customers to come up and put the [reusable] cup down on the bench and hold the lid. We extract the coffee into another little cup first with a spout. Then we pour the shot in the cup, then the milk on top of that without touching it."

He understood why some cafes had put reusable cups in the too-hard basket as they were already trying to work in a tough and changing environment.

West said using cups that only the customer handled and staff did not touch actually meant the safest outcome for everyone.

"These cups are never in our possession, we never touch them. Whereas these takeaway cups - we're around them, they're in our vicinity and then we pass them off to the customers."

West said about a third of customers had since been bringing their own cups under alert level 3 restrictions.

The Takeaway Throwaways website is urging cafes to register with them to let people know if they were accepting reusable cups or containers.

Blumhardt said within two days, 40 outlets had registered.

"We are seeing that people are hungry for a reset. We've gone through all this stuff - what are the opportunities to rebuild our economy in a way that is sustainable but also good for people and the planet."

She said if people were not sure if their favourite cafe was taking reusable cups, they could always call and ask.