KeepCups: The process and impact behind the Students’ Association’s giveaway scheme

On 14 September, the Students’ Association announced that free KeepCups would be given away at all student union and university cafes. Within a week, almost 4,000 University of Edinburgh and Students’ Association branded KeepCups were distributed amongst students. 

This isn’t the first time KeepCups have made an appearance on campus: serving as a case study for the brand, the University of Edinburgh was the first Scottish university to collaborate with KeepCup and has sold over 18,900 cups since 2011. Alongside this, the university has acted to instil incentives for KeepCup use by allowing students a 20p discount for hot drinks when using the branded cup. 

However, the way in which the university aims to treat disposable coffee cups this year has changed. The distribution of free KeepCups served as a starting point for larger café policies regarding waste. Georgie Harris, the Vice President Community, explained the process behind the giveaway to The Student: “It was the previous VP Community Ollie, and Kai the VP Activities and Services last year, now the VP Welfare, who originally lobbied the university for money. They got £20,000 from the Head of Corporate Services, essentially to do whatever they wanted with it in terms of sustainability.” 

Upon assuming the role, Harris, alongside Shenan Davis-Williams, the current VP Activities and Services, aimed to use the money to tackle the university’s disposable cup practices through giving away free KeepCups. Harris elaborates, “That was the thought behind it —  to try to raise awareness. Obviously it is more than just a KeepCup, but that was just kind of the selling point for it. It was to try and raise awareness for this bigger ‘We Love Reuse’ scheme.”

This greater scheme has already taken shape in the form of policy changes beyond KeepCups at over 30 university and Students’ Association catering facilities. Cafés not only now accept any form of reusable coffee cup, straying away from their previous branded KeepCup-only policy, but the Students’ Association and the university’s Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS), helped install a new policy of charging 25p to customers who purchase a hot drink in a disposable, single-use cup. 

This new price change policy, or ‘latte levy’, has become a less publicised but essential factor in the Students’ Association’s scheme to tackle plastic waste. “The KeepCup giveaway was paving the way for the 25p charge,” Harris explains, “I know that people kind of see the latte levy and are like ‘Oh, but that means I’m being charged extra’ but we wanted to first make it more fun at the beginning with the giveaway, and second, try to switch the narrative around it to be a more positive thing. It’s not like you are being charged extra, it’s that this is the normal price. What the standard should be is that you are using a reusable cup.” 

The ‘latte levy’ policy has been implemented across various large-chain cafes and other universities at successful rates. Harris references this by telling The Student that “they did it at the University of Winchester and it was really successful and they reduced the use of disposable cups on their campus by  half.” 

The SRS department explains in detail the justification for the ‘latte levy’ policy on their website. They explain that disposable cups are proven hard to recycle within the Scottish waste system and thus must be addressed within the catering facilities across the university in order to reduce the university’s wider wastage. Furthermore, according to Wired Magazine, plastic cups can’t be recycled due to a polyethylene liner which stops the cardboard within the cup from getting wet. The standard UK recycling system doesn’t properly separate plastic from paper, and therefore most used plastic cups don’t get recycled.  

However, despite the significant wastage it prevents, environmental policy doesn’t just stop at a KeepCup. Despite the positive reaction to the giveaway, there is more to be done when it comes to encouraging sustainability. Vox News reported that ‘landfill’ is a lower concern than climate change, showing that tackling wastage is only one piece in the puzzle of environmental concerns. With this in mind, KeepCups serve only as a small step as the Students’ Association and the wider university community are planning on creating more change within the future. Harris tells The Student, “I know the KeepCup giveaway was quite gimmicky, but it is one of things that makes people talk a bit more about sustainable practices. I’m not trying to say KeepCups will save the planet, it obviously won’t, but plastic waste is such a pandemic, and everyone has to do something about it.” 

Photo: Andrew Perry

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