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Commentary: Cafes shouldn’t rely on customers bringing their own tumblers

Beyond plastic bag charges and bans, businesses play a large role in getting customers onboard BYO, says an analyst.

Commentary: Cafes shouldn’t rely on customers bringing their own tumblers
Single-use takeaway containers are stacked up high at a food stall. (Source: AFP)

KUALA LUMPUR: One of the first things that people concerned about the environment do is to BYO (bring your own), be it containers for takeaway meals or a tote bag for shopping and groceries.

According to 2022 research by market intelligence company Mintel, 75 per cent of Singaporean consumers say that they try to act in a way that is not harmful to the environment.

But this might be linked to whether it makes their lives easier, not harder. Results from the OCBC Climate Index 2021 showed that 78 per cent of respondents do not bring reusable bags with them when shopping.

Those who actually carry reusables to avoid single-use plastics are likely a smaller minority, given the sheer inconvenience of it. Remembering to bring them along is one thing, then lugging them along everywhere you go, clean or used, is another.

Perhaps this is down to the fact that much of our daily lives are already highly convenient. In Singapore, trash can easily be disposed of in individual chutes or bins outside homes, which trucks whisk away daily. With a few taps and swipes on delivery apps, food or groceries arrive neatly packed at doorsteps.

So the BYO movement is an active decision to say “no” to everyday conveniences and luxuries in favour of a more sustainable way of living.

Singapore targets to cut the amount of waste dumped at Semakau by 30 per cent by 2030, especially since the landfill is projected to run out of space by 2035. But plastics remain the largest category of waste disposed of – 924,000 tonnes of it – according to NEA statistics.

So what can be done to get everyone involved in the BYO movement?


Policies, such as levies and bans, can go a long way in shaping consumer behaviour. Governments worldwide are realising this – the United Nations, on Mar 2, agreed to create the first global treaty to end plastic pollution, calling it the most important environmental deal since the Paris Agreement on climate change.

In Singapore, large supermarkets will charge a minimum of 5 cents per disposable carrier bag starting in mid-2023, following years of parliamentary and public debate on ways to cut excessive use of plastic bags.

The hope is to nudge consumers into bringing reusable bags on their grocery runs, without entirely removing access to disposable carriers.

Other countries have gone further. Thailand has banned plastic bags at supermarkets and department stores since 2020, though these are still used by other vendors. Australia and China have also identified single-use plastic straws and cutlery to be phased out.

But nationwide measures are only part of the solution when it might be challenging to get a consensus across different industries and the public.


Businesses are the more critical plank in getting more people to adopt BYO habits. According to non-governmental organisation Zero Waste SG, over 1,000 local retail outlets offer incentives to customers who BYO. Some cafes, for instance, will give customers a 50-cent discount on their orders.

But are these small incentives enough to make customers pack their reusables before they step out of the house? A 2016 study by Cardiff University found that a 25-pence (S$0.40) charge for disposable cups increased the use of reusable ones by 3.4 per cent, while a discount made no impact.

The study author suggested that a surcharge is more effective than an incentive because “people are far more sensitive to losses than to gains when making decisions”.

Several women wait at a bus stop with trolleys full of single-use plastic bags. (File photo: TODAY/Chng Shao Kai)

What really slashed disposable cup usage is a combination of measures including providing reusable cups, environmental messaging in cafes and imposing a surcharge. These, on average, increased the use of reusable cups by 12.5 per cent across the UK cafes studied.

In that vein, certain global establishments are testing new circular models in Singapore and other markets to make reusable cups and containers available to customers. 

Starbucks Singapore, in partnership with Muuse a reusable to-go platform that allows customers to borrow cups by scanning a QR code using the Muuse App launched the “Borrow a Cup” pilot programme at three of its outlets at the National University of Singapore from January to May 2022.

Customers can purchase their drinks in reusable cups and drop them off at six return stations, dotted across the campus. Each reusable cup gets cleaned and sanitised before the next use and can be reused up to 30 times therefore saving up to 30 single-use cups.

Starbucks says that they will apply their takeaways from this pilot programme to other stores globally, as part of the company’s goal to halve its waste sent to landfills by 2030.

Seemingly straightforward ideas like this may present new challenges in logistics or in overcoming consumer resistance. However, businesses have a stake in adopting measures to reduce waste. Mintel research found that 60 per cent of Singaporean consumers said that they are prepared to boycott companies that behave unethically.

Consumer perceptions of ethics are shaped by social causes most pressing at the moment, so brands need to show that they are conscious of, and committed to, addressing sustainability issues.


Besides making BYO as convenient as possible for consumers, brands can use their platform to communicate the need to protect the environment. They can do so through storefronts, products, campaigns and by working with local creators.

Lendlease Singapore’s “You Won’t Believe It’s Trash” exhibition at four of their malls displays movie props and models made from waste like cardboard boxes and broom heads. It aims to remind shoppers to be conscious of their consumption and the implications of throwaway culture. 

Brands have also created innovative products that change consumers’ perceptions of waste. German coffee brand Kaffeeform offers reusable coffee cups made from spent coffee grounds, designed to be used for a long time.

If the day comes when a consumer would like to dispose of it, they can send it back to the company (who will break the material down and recycle it once more) or it can be thrown in with food waste as it is compostable.

Businesses can consider new reward programmes and operating practices that incentivise BYO while making life easier for consumers. They should not let up on the messaging too, so the waste generated from our lifestyles will be made visible, which can enable us to make positive changes.

Convenience and value remain barriers that may drive consumers to stick with single-use items. For many sustainable habits, the aphorism of not letting perfect be the enemy of good is apt – we might not BYO in every situation with single-use plastics, but with proper encouragement and conducive business models, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t choose BYO more often.

Joey Khong is Mintel’s Trends Analyst for the SEA region.

Source: CNA/geh