Takeaway culture has meant that the volume of disposable packaging in our global waste stream has increased to staggering levels; estimates vary but perhaps 500 billion disposable cups are thrown away annually across the globe (58 billion in the US, 2.5 billion in the UK, almost 1 billion in Australia). In New Zealand, 100–200 million disposable cups are used annually.
Tackling the coffee cup mountains
When we at the University of Canterbury were first told, back in 2013, that takeaway coffee cups would soon no longer be accepted by our recycler – because of issues in China – we knew we had to do something. Takeaway cups had become an classic waste issue, and we were extremely unhappy about this retrogressive change. So ahead of the change, we introduced a trial to collect coffee cups and send them away for composting. Blue bins specifically for coffee cups only began to appear on our campus.
Since then, there has been nationwide and international interest and concern about what to do with the burgeoning mountains of cups entering our disposable, takeaway culture. Our small trial at the University of Canterbury, which has diverted around 50,000 cups from landfill, has drawn exactly the right kind of attention.
The issue is complex. For those who ask ‘why can’t they all just be composted?’ or, ‘why can’t we just only use compostable cups?’ there is a long-winded answer. Our story will hopefully shed some light on what the issues are exactly, and help others on the journey.
What are they made of?
There are many kinds of takeaway cups on the market, which is an issue for waste service providers. Each brand of cup may need a different treatment – and this is way beyond what anyone can manage locally.
Generally, takeaway coffee cups have waterproof lining. Sometimes this is wax or polyethylene. Sometimes it is a polylactic acid (PLA) plastic lining, which is derived from plant materials – ‘compostable’ cups have this lining. PLA lining is partly what prevents cups being accepted for recycling, because it needs to be stripped out before the paper can be recycled. Practically no one can do this currently. And for compostable cups, that PLA is often derived from cornstarch that has been made with – you guessed it – genetically engineered corn. Ouch.
The next thing is that takeaway coffee cups, by their very nature, travel. At the University, which is more or less a closed system, we could pretty much guarantee that all our cups will be from an approved provider. (At a municipal level this is much harder to police, perhaps impossible). Yet, even with this advantage, there is some important consumer education to do. Cups are notoriously contaminated: think milk foam and soggy marshmallows, or how they get used as mini-rubbish bins for apple cores, pie wrappers and god knows what else. And don’t get me started about lids.
Collection and signage
For the University of Canterbury, during our trial period we have invested in signage that is as explicit as possible to limit contamination at the front end. At the back end of our system we have someone sorting the cups so that what we send away is clean. Our trial has been mostly focused on testing how people will use a separate collection point for coffee cups, and what kind of resource would be required to maintain this system.
So far, we think it has been a success. Chloe Wium, who sorts the cups, says: “I think people are beginning to realise that coffee cups don’t just disappear once you throw them in the bin, and over the last few months I’ve (slowly) noticed less rubbish in the bins, and more people making an effort to sort the cups from general rubbish, even if lids are still a problem.”
Sorting and composting
The next step is what to do with this material. We can divide it into two groups: those cups that claim to be compostable, and those that claim to be recyclable. We simply don’t use cups that are neither. Plastic and polystyrene cups have absolutely no place in this picture. We want to use practices that are regenerative and restorative.
For us, collecting cups to send to China for recycling, or even to be recycled in a New Zealand plant, is a very distant second-best. We want our waste to be composted, to be returned to the earth, and to enrich and nourish our precious soils. To achieve this we need to a) use procurement instruments to ensure all vendors only use an approved variety of cup, and b) know that the selected cups will be taken by a composter (or recycler).
At the University, we started with two district council composting machines. We sent our cups there, they mixed them in with the rest of the waste (lord, the chicken carcasses!) to become compost. We didn’t test for any chemical residue, but the composting part worked fine. However, that option came to an end, so we are now having the cups baled until a better option is developed. Luckily, that is in process.
Trial results promising
Three composting trials of coffee cups and other ‘service ware’ items have been undertaken in Christchurch this year, and the results are extremely promising.
Compostable service ware can be split into two types: the ones with a PLA lining (for liquids) and the ones without.
Two trials were undertaken by the Christchurch City Council (CCC) and one by EnviroWaste. The CCC events team sent service ware from three large events to Living Earth (CCC’s organic processing plant), and Cultivate Waste (see sidebar). Living Earth took service ware without the PLA-lined materials; Cultivate Waste took service ware with PLA. EnviroWaste sent both types to a local landscaping firm. In addition, Cultivate Waste took service ware from another firm and composted it in their central city Peterborough Urban Farm.
Ecoware were the exclusive approved supplier of compostable food service ware for the CCC and EnviroWaste trials. The CCC trial diverted 61%, or 12 tonnes, of food waste and packaging which would have otherwise ended up in landfill.
It is really important to highlight the fact that Living Earth could not take all the product. One of the reasons was that, as a BioGro certified organic company, they cannot take product that is derived from GE materials (the cornstarch in the PLA is made from GE corn). The fact that it has been denatured and contains no genetic material is not the point; upstream production of the raw material is also taken into account.
This PLA problem is a tricky one to work through, but Ecoware’s founder and director, Alex Magaraggia, is optimistic. “Our PLA has been manufactured by our global partner Natureworks with equal weight given to environmental, social, and economic sustainability considerations. Certain packaging types will always require some sort of lining, and we believe our Ingeo bioplastic is currently the best alternative to non-renewable oil-based plastic linings, as it has the lowest greenhouse gas quotient of any commercially available plastic, and facilitates the diversion of food waste from landfill when it is composted at approved facilities. We don’t claim it’s perfect, but we’re committed to its continuous improvement, and within five years GMO feedstock won’t even be a consideration as with our global partners we’ve launched a pilot facility looking to skip plants, and convert greenhouse gases directly into bioplastic.”
What we’ve learnt
All of the trials were successful, in that the packaging all broke down sufficiently. This is great. For the University of Canterbury, this means we understand a lot more about which products we could require vendors to sell. Coffee cups are still a problem; we can’t send them with our organics to Living Earth because of the PLA. But we have learned that ordinary composting works with these products, and that creates opportunities. We don’t especially want to keep our blue bins forever; we’d dearly love to mix our food waste with the cups and other service ware and send it all away to be composted.
Reusable cups: truly sustainable
Of course, this is only one response to takeaway culture. Dr. Sharon McIver, former UC waste reduction educator, and now the owner of recycling consultancy Our Daily Waste, provided onsite sorting services at two of the events involved with the CCC trial.
“The results of all these trials is really encouraging, and at some point I hope that all Canterbury coffee providers will switch to compostable, but it’s important to remember that whatever it is made of disposable products are never sustainable,” she says. “There is still a lot of upstream waste, transport, processing and environmental costs to consider. The only truly sustainable choice for takeaway coffee cups is reusable – and they’re way classier too. Next time you get offered a disposable coffee cup, ask yourself the question ‘does this go with my outfit?’”
It is an evolving process, and we need to remain responsive to opportunities as they arise, always keeping our eyes on the prize: reducing waste in the first place, and finding new ways to send our waste to the earth as safely as possible.
Originally published in Organic NZ magazine (July/August 2016)