WASTE – What should we do with our disposable coffee cups?

By Andy Kenworthy

Conventional disposable coffee cups can’t be recycled in New Zealand and cause tonnes of waste. New options are coming through, but how do we handle the transition?

The Kiwi love affair with the brown bean has some early heritage. Way back in 1890 David Strang of Invercargill held the world’s second patent around the production of instant coffee. According to research from Canstar Blue, New Zealand has the 15th highest per capita coffee consumption rate in the world.

Coffee has also featured at the forefront of sustainable thinking in recent years. Organic and Fair Trade approaches both gained significant traction in the sector in the early 2000s.

But the Achilles heel for sustainable take-away coffee remains the cup it comes in.

A lot of us might think of a conventional disposable coffee cup as basically a paper cup with a plastic lid. Of course there are the issues of where the wood pulp to make them comes from, which is generally from overseas plantations. And plastic means oil. But at least they should be recyclable, right?

Well they would be if the paper bit wasn’t lined and bound with polyethylene plastic. This stops it leaking or going soggy. Unfortunately, it also means they can’t be recycled in New Zealand. Nearly all of them end up in landfill. Someone who consumes five coffees a week can produce about 14kg of waste a year.

Compostable cups

Pioneers like SBN members Ecoware and Innocent packaging are trying to improve things. They use plant-based bio plastics for the coating and lids instead. This means the whole cup is compostable. This is currently done in commercial composting set ups. But recent research shows that some home composting set ups can get hot enough to break the cups down.

Kokako café uses Innocent Packaging. Managing Director Mike Murphy says: “We researched the market extensively and asked a number of deep questions to potential suppliers around their sourcing protocols and factory conditions where the cups were manufactured.”

Ecoware founder Alex Magaraggia says one of the concerns for commercial compost facilities considering accepting compostable food packaging is the risk of contamination with non-compostable material.

“There is one facility I went to north of Sydney that opened itself up to compostable food packaging and overnight its contamination went up 8%. That’s huge in product that is being sold as organic material that is going to enhance your garden. You can’t have little pieces of oil-based plastic in there which aren’t able to be composted.”

Ecoware’s cups were in recent tests by the Packaging Forum. This identified 14 commercial composting sites around the country ready and willing to take them. There are nearly 100 other facilities around the country that could be suitable. More of those are opening their doors all the time.

In Auckland Innocent Packaging has partnered with We Compost and Envirofert to take the cups and lids. In Wellington the company is working with Kai to Compost. Innocent is also exploring opportunities in Napier and Kaikoura. It is currently doing a trial with the Living Earth compost company.

Z Energy sells 4.5 million takeaway coffees a year, and has now begun switching to compostable cups. Crucially, Z is also setting up its own cup collection points at its service stations. This is filling in another important piece of the puzzle. For a cup to be genuinely compostable it has to get to one of those composting facilities.

Paul Evans from waste industry body WasteMINZ explains the challenges.

“Most things can be recycled in theory,” he says. “But ultimately it comes down to whether they are economically viable to recycle and if infrastructure is available in the specific region.”

Reusable cups

Of course just using reusable cups is another option. Australian reusable cup manufacturer Keep Cup reckons this can eliminate the waste. They claim it halves the carbon emissions and energy use. It cuts about two-thirds of the water use in a year’s five-a-week coffee habit. But other studies say you need to be reusing your cup consistently for several years to overcome the extra environmental cost of making it instead of the disposable.

This doesn’t play well against the inconsistency and opportunism of most people’s behaviour. Before founding Innocent Tony Small ran a reusable cup company. He found that like most sustainability options, if it isn’t convenient, it doesn’t catch on.

“The simple fact is that reusable coffee cups just aren’t having the impact we need to see,” he says. “I noticed friends, family and customers would stop using the reusable cups about eight to 12 weeks in.”

This makes sense. How many of us have at least one of those ‘eco-cups’ rattling around in the back of our cupboards, and still go disposable?

Shifting to more sustainable disposables

It seems clear that disposables are here to stay. So what can we do to speed up the shift to making them sustainable?

Tony agrees with Alex. The link with the composting industry is the key.

“We need organic collections and certification around compostable products,” he says. “The composting industry is where recycling was 15 years ago. There are too many products claiming to be biodegradable when they aren’t. These products could really damage the industry and waste streams. It’s vital certification is in place. This will make sure only 100% certified compostable plant based products are ending up in organic collections.”

Others have suggested attempting to price unsustainable options out of the market. Almost nine per cent of the price of a $4 takeaway coffee is the cost of the cup. A small paper coffee cup is about 20c, plus 10c extra for the plastic lid. So how about a 5c levy on each old fashioned disposable cup? Could that help incentivise the shift and create a funding stream for further development?

Mike is not keen: “I think education is key. We’d be better to educate other consumers that they are part of the solution. It is always the consumer’s choice where they buy their coffee and how they take it away, whether that be in a compostable or re-usable cup.”

Paul says it could have its place.

“Price signals can be incredibly effective,” he says. “We have seen this in the UK, where plastic bag charges have reduced usage by some 85%. Reduction is right at the top of the waste hierarchy, so that’s brilliant.

“But I think we always need to think of interventions in a cohesive way. Sometimes there can be unintended consequences. From my perspective if you were going to look at a charge, then at the same time consider a transition to all cups being compostable. This would mean those that are still disposed of could be treated in a uniform way. You’d also need to consider how to build capacity in the composting sector and develop end markets for the resulting compost.”

Alex would go further. He looks to the radical example being set by France. France has already banned small single use plastic bags and plastic disposable food ware, effective from 2020. Alex reckons something along those lines would make the change we need.

“There are sustainable alternatives out there. Using non-renewable materials to make these products is crazy. We are seeing more and more smart ideas coming forward for end of life options.

“If we had a ban then we would be able to introduce kerbside collection on organic waste that could accept the cups. At the moment where there is kerbside collection there are bylaws so you can’t put in any kind of packaging. This is because of contamination.

“Right now Joe Bloggs consumer doesn’t know whether the cup he is holding is compostable or not. There are companies claiming biodegradability for oil-based plastic with an additive. Those products can’t be composted. When Joe Bloggs consumer sees it says biodegradable it is likely to end up in the organic waste bin.

“A levy won’t help that much if you still have oil based products that end up in the wrong bin and contaminate the system.”

At the moment even an extra charge for reusable cups looks unlikely, let alone a ban. Only last month Minister for the Environment Nick Smith ruled out a similar scheme for plastic bags. He felt the move would be unjustified, since plastic bags only make up a small proportion of litter and landfill.

There are of course other benefits in compostable cups, even in an imperfect system. Using plant starch rather than trees and plastic reduces the environmental impact when it is sustainably and ethically sourced.

While the big shift continues, we should consider getting a decent coffee machine and Fair Trade organic coffee in our workplaces. When out and about we should all look for cafés like Kokako and Z Espress that are using compostable cups and actually collecting them to be composted. And talk to your local café about doing the same. You can also contact commercial composters like We Compost to collect compostable materials from your workplace.

And as Mike says: “The ultimate solution is to get up five minutes early and have your coffee in a porcelain cup at your favourite café!”

But then if we had that kind of time and energy on our hands we might not need all the coffee in the first place…

Check out the SBN Directory to source sustainable cafes and packaging near where you are.