Earlier this year, ABC presenter Craig Reucassel filled an old Melbourne tram with 50,000 coffee cups. The stunt sought to highlight the number of takeaway coffees Australians consume – and dispose of – every 30 minutes. That’s more than one billion takeaway coffee cups every year. Take a moment to let those numbers sink in. At the same time, picture the mountains of discarded cups in landfill all around the country.
The visual stunt was part of the ABC’s three-part series War on Waste, which aired its final episode last week. In it, Reucassel suggests all takeaway coffee cups are non-recyclable. But it turns out that many are. One manufacturer of products with minimal environmental impact (takeaway coffee cups called BioCups, lids and other packaging) is BioPak. BioPak’s Richard Fine tells Broadsheet the ABC’s reporting on the issue was “not 100 per cent accurate”. “Paper cups – including BioCups – are accepted in the paper-recycling stream in many [Australian] councils.” BioCups are also compostable (though not in home compost heaps), as well as recyclable.
Fine says, in 2006, the company introduced compostable disposable containers to the Australian market, however, "There were no compost facilities that would take our products". In the 11 years since, the industry has grown rapidly, with more manufacturers and the public pushing for a more comprehensive service. But as a country, we’re lagging on all fronts. “Compare Australia’s current 45 per cent paper recycling rate to some countries achieving a 75 per cent rate and it’s clear to see we have a problem that is bigger than coffee cups,” says Fine.
So why are recyclable cups still winding up in landfill? The main issue is underdeveloped infrastructure. When waste arrives at sorting facilities, the recyclable cups have to be separated from the non-recyclable ones. Facilities without the technology to remove the plastic coating from the cardboard simply send all the cups to landfill - recyclable or not.
“Some recyclers say they will not accept paper cups… yet these very same companies accept paper milk and juice cartons, which are made from the same components as coffee cups,” Fine says.
Better labelling can help tackle the issue, and investing in better recycling infrastructure is obviously crucial. Fine suggests cities adopt a multi-bin system like those seen at music and food festivals. “Consumers generally want to do the right thing,” he says, and the multi-bins are a simple way of minimising contamination.
In the suburbs, Fine says recycling is often controlled by local councils. He’s published a list to help you determine if your local council recycles coffee cups, naming those around Australia who will accept BioCups in household recycling bins. (Pro tip: emptying all the liquid in the sink then flattening out paper cups allows them to move though the sorting station easier.)
What about throwing coffee cups in with your home compost heap? Unfortunately, that's probably not going to work. “PLA [the bioplastic with which the cups are lined] requires a temperature of 55 degrees, maintained for 10 days, to break down the bonds and allow the micro-organisms to start decomposition,” says Fine. Best to leave it to the professionals.
Asking your barista about the cups they use – and recommending they choose an environmentally friendly option – is another way customers can help.
Of course, the best thing you can do to reduce the impact of our takeaway coffee culture is to remove the need for a disposable cup at all. More and more cafes are encouraging customers to bring their own cups and mugs by offering discounts, and some councils – such as Adelaide City – are supporting retailers with rebates.