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New Zealand's great disposable coffee cup conundrum

It’s 2018, and we’re still having a global debate about single-use, disposable items such as coffee cups, plastic straws, cheap wooden chopsticks, and more. Here in the Land of the Long White Cloud, the issue of what to do with disposable coffee cups – and how to get rid of them without polluting the planet – is burning as hot as ever.

In the UK, MPs are discussing a 25 pence charge for all disposable coffee cups, since just one in about 400 of the cups are recycled. In China, the government has long been in a battle against disposable chopsticks. A number of US and European cities – such as Portland, Oregon and San Francisco – have banned single-use plastic bags. France has gone even further than plastic bags, also banning plastic cups, cutlery and straws – a big deal considering the nation throws away about 150 single-use cups every second (or about 4.73 billion per year).

And New Zealand? The struggle against disposable coffee cups rages on.

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 coffee goes back a while. In 1890 ,David Strang of Invercargill held the world’s second patent around the production of instant coffee. Today, according to research from Canstar Blue, New Zealand has the 15th-highest per capita coffee consumption rate in the world. And let’s not forget the argument over whether we’re the creators of the flat white (regardless, we all know Aotearoa is its spiritual home. Sorry not sorry, Australia).

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 w ith 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?

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 – and nearly all of them end up in landfills.

And it adds up. Someone who consumes five coffees a week can produce about 14 kilogrammes of waste a year.

Compostable cups

Organisations such as Ecoware and Innocent packaging are trying to improve things. They use plant-based bioplastics for the coating and lids instead, which means the whole cup is compostable. This is currently done in commercial composting setups. But recent research shows that some home composting setups 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 eight percent. That’s huge in a 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.”

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.

Other companies are doing things, too. 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, as for a cup to be genuinely compostable, it has to get to one of those composting facilities. 

Paul Evans from waste industry body WasteMINZ describes 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.

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.”

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?

Small agrees with Magaraggia in the belief that the link with the composting industry is 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 percent of the price of a $4 takeaway coffee is the cost of the cup.

Kokako’s Murphy 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.”

WasteMINZ’s Evans 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 percent. 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.”

Magaraggia would go further, reckoning that something like France’s laws would be something Aotearoa would do well to emulate. “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.”  

Evans says there is a simple solution – but one that might require a significant mindset change among many consumers. “The ultimate solution is to get up five minutes early and have your coffee in a porcelain cup at your favourite café!”

Nom Nom in Dunedin. Photo: Ben Mack
Portions of this story first appeared on the website of the Sustainable Business Network.

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