Reusable Cups 101

Make the swap to reusable cups with this ‘how to’ guide from City to Sea’s Refill project.

Reusable CupIf you want to produce epic events without creating piles of plastic waste, then this is the guide for you. It’s about using effective ways to end our dependence on single-use plastic cups and replace them with reusable alternatives.

The event industry relies heavily on disposable plastic. Around 100+ million plastic cups are used every year at UK festivals and live events, and most of these are incinerated or sent to landfill.

Despite many event providers having waste management and recycling systems, recycling rates at events are often surprising low, but the tide is turning. Research for The Show Must Go on Report 2020, found three in four music festivals now use reusable cups – up from half of festivals in 2015. A Ticketmaster survey in 2019 also showed two thirds of festivalgoers ranked ‘waste reduction’ as a priority for festivals above ‘security improvements’ and ‘variety of activities’. Each year, for every 1 million reusable event cups in regular use, 1,000 tonnes of C02e emissions and 300 tonnes waste could be avoided.

The good news is reusable cups have become more widely available and affordable for the UK events industry over the past few years. With suppliers and washing facilities more readily available, all that’s needed is a little investment in planning, staff training and customer comms to shift to a circular drink serving model. Doing this has some big benefits including reducing waste, carbon footprint and the potential for micro plastics. It can also be a cost neutral exercise which can help build positive brand perception and enhance the customer experience.

Reusable Cups

After removing single-use cups, in 2019, Manchester Food And Drink Festival reported a 40% saving in waste management costs due to less bin emptying and litter picking.

No excuse for single use
Our research revealed that many of the event providers we spoke to have switched from single-use plastic cups to bioplastic (or ‘compostable’ plastic), and then discovered it was not the solution they hoped it would be, as they still had bins full of cups, couldn’t find a local compost facility and the cups had cost them much more. Generally, all disposable cups are problematic, even the ‘good’ ones!

We’re not anti-plastic, and some of the best reusable options are made of plastic. What we’re trying to address is our disposable single-use, throw-away lifestyle. And it’s not just single-use plastic that’s the problem. All single-use items are an issue – whatever they’re made from, nothing should be grown or extracted, manufactured, transported and then recycled or incinerated just to be used once and thrown in the bin!

Reusable Cups

Myth Busting

Cups need to be bought and then washed on site
No, cups can be hired. And while on-site washing facilities can be provided, cups can also be returned for washing if preferred.

Punters have to keep the same cup for the whole event
Not necessarily. Hire companies can provide enough cups so that people get a fresh one each time they order a drink.

Washing cups off site leads to higher carbon impact than washing on site
Actually, efficient off-site washing facilities can use less energy and water.

Event cups must be funded by sponsorship
Sponsored cups may not be able to be reused. Event specific cups may be kept as souvenirs. It is normally best to use generic cups – this will ensure the best return rates.

What kind of reusable cup should I use?
Reusable plastic cups are best for outdoor and open-site events. They’re the most affordable and from flutes to pints, there’s a style for every occasion. But not all reusable plastic cups are made equal. Hard polycarbonate plastic cups (the ones most like glass) are more likely to shatter if dropped and become a litter-picker’s nightmare, and they’re not recyclable at the end of their life cycle.

Flexible polypropylene plastic cups are ideal as they don’t break easily and can ultimately be recycled too. There are also stainless steel cups available, although these are expensive to purchase. A good quality reusable cup can withstand up to 500 uses/washes.

For higher durability, reusable cups are made from more raw materials than single-use ones. Lifecycle assessments have calculated that a reusable cup needs to be used between three to 10 times (depending on the washing system) to have a lower environmental impact than a single-use cup. This will happen with rented cups that are returned and head to the next event.

Reusable Cup at a barHow do I source reusable cups?
• Hire them through a company which delivers cups and collects for washing after the event. Different companies have different minimum orders. Collaborate with a bar company that has their own reusable bar cups or can hire them in.
• Buy the cups outright and wash and manage inhouse or locally. This is best if you have multiple events to use them for. With this option, you should also consider whether there’s storage space for the cups, what washing facilities are available (fast, efficient dishwashers are the best option), who will organise and manage the Reusable Cups logocups, cup transport and whether cup branding is a good idea.

Where to get your cups from depends on the type of event you’re holding. Take a look at the table below to see which will work best for what you have planned.

Small event

• Find a supplier who can supply the minimum volume you require.
• Investigate if local bar companies offer hire.
• Club together with other local events to rent cups and meet the minimum order requirements.
• Lobby your local council to provide local cups.
• As a last resort buy a cup for each attendee that they use for the whole event. The challenge with this is that the cup needs to be used multiple times to have a lower life cycle impact.

Large event

• Renting unbranded generic cups from a renting company for your first event before committing to buy any.
• Renting unbranded generic cups and buying a percentage of branded cups.
• Asking your bar company to rent cups or have a stock of their own.

• Buy cups if you can wash onsite or locally.
• You can also buy them and send away for washing with a hire company.
• Rent cups for a big event when you need more than you already have.


Brand gestures
Is branding cups a good idea? Usually not. It may be great for sponsorship income, but it’s not ideal for reusable cup schemes.

If the branding or sponsorship changes this can limit the lifespan of a cup – remember, cups need to be used between three and 10 times, which won’t happen if they’re kept as trophies and more virgin materials will be needed to replace coveted kept cups.

Crowd at festival

Bar management tips
• Designate a person responsible for cup management
• Check the cups in against your order to ensure the numbers going in and out tally up
• Store cups in a dry location and secure if you’re running a deposit scheme (the cups suddenly have a value now!)
• Look to set up your tills with a cup charge and no-cup charge, to help staff remember for each order
• Brief staff to tell customers there’s a charge/deposit and they need to bring their cup back to avoid an additional cost
• Put clear signage behind the bar so that the cup deposit scheme is obvious and easy to follow
• If attendees come without a cup during the event they must be charged
• Make it easier to count cups at the end by stacking them into the cup boxes as they’re returned
• Have a clear system behind the bar separating clean and empty cup boxes to avoid dirties contaminating the clean ones. Brief staff on how to manage this when they’re busy
• Ensure your designated cup manager counts the clean and dirty cups at the end to check numbers.

Reusable Cups logo

Estimating costs
As a rule of thumb, you should plan for a 20% loss rate for cups taken, lost or accidentally binned. Reusable cups costs around 15p +VAT to rent and wash a cup (excluding transport). Add 40p+VAT if the cup is not returned. It costs around 50-60p+VAT to buy one branded cup.

Charging for cups helps remind people that they’re not disposable and greatly improves return rates. This can be done with a levy or a deposit scheme.

With a deposit scheme, typically £1 or £2 is paid on the first drink purchase. Each time the user gets a new drink they return their cup and get a clean one. After their last drink, the user returns their cup and gets their deposit back.

A lower deposit (£1) works best if you own the cups and have low costs for washing and managing them. Higher deposits (£2) usually mean fewer cups are taken off site and more cups are returned. A management system is needed to provide deposit refunds when people have finished drinking. This can slow down service if it’s at the bar. There may be less revenue to cover the cost of cup hire and washing, but this can be factored into the event ticket price.

With a levy system, a non-refundable fee (say £1) is added to the price of the first drink, which covers hire and washing costs of multiple cups. A levy scheme should be cost neutral for an event and removes the need for managing deposits at the bar. To improve compliance, messaging should be clear to explain that no-one makes money from the scheme. Issue tokens if people don’t want to hold on to their cup for the whole event.

People may believe they have paid for a cup and want to keep it. Staffed collection bins at exits with positive messaging and incentives can help minimise this. Be prepared for collecting cups from around the event if people have not returned them. A £1 levy covers someone using three cups and taking one home (3 x 15p + 40p) or using six cups (6 x 15p) and not taking one home.


Measuring impact
• To calculate the plastic waste avoided by changing to reusable cups, multiply the number of cups that would have been used by 20g.
• To calculate the CO2 emissions avoided, multiply the number of cups by 63.8g (70g per cup minus one wash at 6.2g).

Reusable Cup information

More Information
City to Sea’s Refill campaign is an award-winning initiative to help people eat, drink and shop with less waste. Head over to the dynamic online portal for toolkits and resources for your upcoming events including posters, social media content and emails to councils and event producers.

About Open Air Business 1272 Articles
The voice of outdoor hospitality - in print and online. If you liked this article, subscribe to the printed magazine here. We produce industry e-news between issues - please sign up here