When it comes to tackling waste, Australia has plenty of room for improvement. And takeaway coffee cups seem like a particularly good place to start. Every 30 minutes Australians dispose of a staggering 50,000 of them. Increasing awareness of the issue has boosted reusable cup use, but consumers are also looking to cafes to make ethical decisions on their behalf.
With this in mind, Australian manufacturer Detpak has teamed up with US company Smart Planet Technologies to create the RecycleMe cup, which they say will be the first takeaway cup to be accepted in the existing paper-recycling stream. Detpak’s general manager for marketing and innovation, Tom Lunn, says the cup’s ability to be recycled up to seven times sets it apart from BioCups and other packaging intended to have minimal environmental impact.
“Compostable cups like BioCups ... need to go to a commercial composting facility,” says Lunn. “So while a compostable cup is a better solution than a standard cup, the real issue is that less than one per cent of cups are being composted or recycled in Australia.”
Speaking to Broadsheet in June, Richard Fine from BioPak said BioCups are in fact accepted in the paper-recycling stream by some councils across the country.
Lunn points out the amount of cups still ending up in landfill highlights the need for a product that can be collected and processed more easily. One way to do this, he says, is to give people more flexibility when disposing of their cups.
“Rather than putting cups in the normal yellow kerbside bins, we’re putting these [RecycleMe] cups straight into the paper recycling stream,” he says. “These cups will actually go into your paper office bins, or into those big blue bins that collect corrugated cartons at the back of just about every business in Australia.”
It’s a good start. But it seems we still can’t guarantee what happens to the cups once they reach sorting facilities. Australian recycling facilities without the ability to remove the plastic coating from coffee cups will send all cups to landfill.
“There are many [sorting facilities] with different technologies employed and no single answer,” says Planet Ark’s head of operations Marty Middlebrook. “Whether [a cup] is subsequently sent to a cardboard recycler depends on how the MRF [material recycling facility] deals with coffee cups. If a Material Recovery Facility deems liquid paperboard [such as coffee cups] a contaminant, it will be sent to landfill.”
One way to increase the chances that your cup will be identified as recycling is to crush the base so it's received as flat cardboard.
To ensure RecycleMe cups work in the way they’re intended, several cafes around the country are trialling them this week: Toby’s Estate in Sydney; both cafes in Melbourne Museum; Kicco and Hawker Street Cafe in Adelaide; and Pilgrim Coffee in Hobart. If all goes to plan, full-scale commercial production will start in December.
Hawker Street Cafe owner Hilda Zuvela is trialling the cups in the hope recyclable takeaway cups one day become the norm.
“We watched [ABC documentary] War on Waste with the family, and the kids were asking, ‘What are we going to do?’” Zuvela says. “We hope the cups encourage people to visit cafes who are doing something about the issue. We care, and we have a family we’re setting examples for.”