Walk the talk: pursuing sustainability in the midst of a global pandemic

Jie Zhou
8 min readMar 23, 2021


I couldn’t possibly choose a worse time to embark on the journey of building a sustainable cafe during a global pandemic. According to a new research from Aldermore, the specialist bank, in the UK, SMEs in the hospitality and leisure industries have been the hardest hit by the pandemic, losing on average 54% of their monthly business income. In our case, there have been no profits yet.

Nowadays, it’s probably a cliche to start any conversation with C19, its impact on the economy, on mental health etc. I am an optimist, and I think there is one silver lining of this catastrophic crisis: it has reshaped how people think about sustainability and heightened environmental awareness in the general public.

A recent BCG survey of more than 3,000 people across eight countries has found that in the wake of the pandemic, people are more concerned about addressing environmental challenges and are more committed to changing their own behaviour to advance sustainability. 70% of survey participants said they were more aware now than before C19 of the fact that human activities have caused climate change and biodiversity losses. More than two-thirds of respondents think that economic recovery plans should make environmental issues a priority(#buildbackbetter).

The crisis is driving change at the individual level too. 40% reporting that they intend to adopt more sustainable behaviour in the future. Reducing household energy consumption, increasing recycling and composting, and supporting locally produced goods are ranked among the top actions. I have seen a new Zero Waste shop open in the small town centre where I live, locally produced dairy milk and ice-cream has gained traction. This is reassuring.

The general trend has also reaffirmed my goal of pursuing a sustainable business and providing better products & service to the local community. I would like to share with you what has been done, what’s next, and challenges that I hope to get your feedback on.

photo from unsplash

Coffee beans supplied in 100% compostable pakaging

photo by the author

The core business of any cafe is coffee, so I will start with this. Three criteria for a coffee supplier were considered:

  • taste
  • fair-trade & sustainability
  • locally roasted to minimise carbon footprint

After lots of desk research, coffee tasting and many visits to roasting factories, Voyager Coffee stood out, ticking all three boxes above.

Also based on the South coast of England, we share the same appreciation and gratitude of the wild and beautiful South West landscape and Jurassic coastline. The affection for nature has been embedded in the two brands’ ethos. Voyager Coffee roastery is situated on the edge of rugged Dartmoor in Buckfastleigh, where coffee beans are hand-roasted in small batches. In doing so, they continue to produce the most exciting and flavoursome single-origin coffee experiences and espresso blends for all to enjoy!

“At our heart, we are simply lovers of great coffee. We take pride in being the roasters at the forefront of Devon’s exciting coffee scene. Sourcing rich and delicious coffees from sustainable farms around the world, Voyager Coffee supply to coffee shops, cafes, and hotels across the South West. In order to supply the region with the best-tasting coffee, we work with small, specialist importers to ensure traceability. We also believe in minimising our environmental footprint; that is why we are the first coffee roasters in Devon or Cornwall (as far as we know) to use 100% compostable packaging.” — — Voyager Coffee

Yes, these bags are 100% made from plants. Specific plants — corn, sugar cane and beets — produce starches, then get converted into poly-lactic acid (PLA) through milling, hydrolysis, and fermentation. After using this bag can be hot composted, breaking down quickly. The resulting compost is a great soil improver helping to grow more plants!

Coffee Cups & Lids: recyclable or compostable?

photo by the author

The next move is takeaway coffee. For a long time, I thought coffee cups are recyclable and always threw them into the recycling bin. But the truth is: despite most coffee takeaway cups looking like they are made of paper, there is invisible plastic liner that is derived from crude oil. In the UK, less than 0.25% of those cups — just one in every 400 — are recycled (Friends of the Earth, 2018). Every day around half a million become street litter, and the vast bulk of them end up in landfill, where the plastic could take centuries to degrade.

The component parts — the paper and plastic liner — are each recyclable. It’s the way they’re bonded together that makes these cups tricky to dismantle and recycle. Only a few factories in the UK can actually seperate them and recycle them properly. One of them is James Cropper Paper Mill which has commited itself to A New Plasic Economy launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundarion (where I have been very pround to work since 2016).

However, even if we solved the challenge of recycling, collecting/sorting/ washing and transporting them to the recycler has proven to be very difficult. By definition, most takeaway cups will end up off the premises, so customers have to be persuaded to bring back their empties for recycling. These hurdles exist even before we tackle cup lids which most of them are made of plastic (polystyrene). From a technical point of view, polystyrene can be recycled, but it’s not economic viable to do so, as there is simply no market for it.

So, moving on to compostable: maybe they are the best choice? In my opinion, they’re better than recyclable cups, but come with their own pros and cons.

photo by the author

The cup, including the lid, chosen is 100% compostable and made from plant-based materials including corn starch and sugar cane. They’re designed to degrade more quickly, and be safely turned into compost, and once composted, the remaining materials can be used as soil fertiliser.

But, there is a caveat, compostable cups are only going to rot down properly in the right conditions with suitable heat, moisture and micro-organisms. That’s usually only possible at an industrial composting facility. So adding it to a home compost heap probably won’t work. It’s highly unlikely that customers will have access to a commercial composting bin, and bioplastics contaminate traditional recycling streams. So the best way is to collect them in the cafe and put into the food bin which later is collected by local council. This natually led me to think about how to get those coffee cups back from consumers??

How to encourage consumers behaviour change?

Putting my sustainability hat on: what would be a good solution to incentivise customers to change their behaviour?

  • 25p discount for reusable cups

Several UK coffee shops, including Costa, Starbucks, Pret A Manger, Café Nero and Paul, offer customers a 25p discount for using a reusable cup. However, just 1–2% of sales receive this discount. Why? Some argue that the 25p discount is not big enough to change behaviour and suggest raise the discount to 50p. Another reason identified in the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report on Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups is:

“there is a difference between offering something and actively pushing and promoting it.”

However, for a SMEs trying to promote sustainable coffee, 50p is almost 23% of the a cup of coffee (retail price at £2.20 for a latte/cappucino). This would leave SMEs with not much margin, while offering 100% compostable cups & lids cost 12p. From the business perspective, the discount sounds far less attractive.

  • latte levy

If 25p discount is not enough entice people to bring their own reusable cups. Then how about 25p latte levy? In 2018, Starbucks is trialling the “latte levy (5p)” for takeaway cups across 35 of its London outlets for three months. All revenue earned will go to environmental charity Hubbub, which is working alongside Starbucks. Starbuck’s own reseach shows 48% of customers said they would carry a reusable cup to avoid the additional charge, however, in reality, only 1.8% of Starbucks’ customers currently take up their offer.

Maybe 5p is too little? Eunomia Research and Consulting have estimated that a 25p charge would lead to a 30% reduction in the use of disposable cups, generating £438 million of revenue. Ireland will impose the latte levy (0.25 euro) on disposable coffee cups by 2021. But, would this cause extra burden on taxpayer? There is a clear distinction between citizens and consumers: you may use no beverage containers in a year but you are still paying through your council tax for the collection and onward processing of those items.

The challenges of takeaway coffee cups go far beyond the premises of any single cafe. As one SME, this is where I get frustructed when facing the magnitute of the wicked problem. I think just looking after our own premises and ‘not in my backyard’ mentality is not good enough. What we need is a collborative approach with other cafe owners, the local council, customers and even waste management companies.

Reusable cup system: it takes a village

The most exciting pilot project that I recently read about scaling a reusable cup system across clusters of local cafes in the City of San Francisco and City of Palo Alto, CA. The initiative (NextGen Cup) is launched by Closed Loop Partners, with founding partners including Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Think of bike-sharing in London, this is a similar concept but with reusable coffee cups. Consumer pays deposite on the cups and gets paid back once the cup goes back to cafe. Cups could be returned to any stores within this area. The reusable cup supplier then collects, disinfects and redistributes cups again. Creating a reusable cup system requires collaboration amongst diverse stakeholders — customers, businesses, staff, logistics providers, and the policy & regulation experts. It takes a village. Each stakeholder is different in approach and has a different role to play in the larger implementation of a reusable system.

Clearly, I haven’t yet come up with a good solution and it’s still quite early on along the journey. I would love to hear your views on it and please leave a message sharing your thoughts :-).

Jie 2021 March

Remember the half-painted/semi-finished room that I posted in my last blog (Sustainability Makes Small Smart)? This is how it looks like now. Mega thanks to Steve for making it happen.

photo by the author
photo by the author


  1. ReLondon (former London Waste and Recycling Board): A circular economy guide for the food service industry (2020)
  2. Sustainable Restaurant Association: Unwrapping Plastics (2020)
  3. House of Commons: Environmental Audit Committee report on Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups (2017)



Jie Zhou

Current student of MSt Sustainability Leadership@ Cambridge University (2020–2022)