By the team at Think Greener
Disposable coffee cups might not be on everyone’s top ten list of how to move to a sustainable future, but perhaps they should be. Disposable cups in any form are amongst the prime offenders when considering the problem of single-use plastics.
A large part of the problem is the convenience they offer to coffee shops and cafes. Many of these establishments rely on the takeaway side of their business for a large proportion of their trade. This makes ditching disposable cups an unrealistic option for many businesses.
The good news is there is a sustainable option in the shape of plastic-free compostable coffee cups. This article discusses the problems with plastic cups and how switching to compostable cups is a big step towards a sustainable future for coffee shops, mobile food retailers, and cafes.
Plastic Cups – An unsustainable option
We are all acutely aware of the problems associated with our heavy reliance on single-use plastics. Disposable cups in any form constitutes a large part of this problem, and the issue is worsened when considering one of the most common types of cup – The plastic-coated paper coffee cup, this particular “nasty” will be discussed in more detail further down.
To get an idea of the scale of the disposable cup problem, it is worth looking at some facts and figures.
Disposable Plastic Cups – The facts
It might seem innocent enough to grab your morning coffee on the go. After all, it’s just a single cup, and it will end up in a recycling bin, so all is well, isn’t it? Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as this – the first undesirable fact to look at is the recycling of disposable cups.
- Recycling of Disposable Cups – When you buy a takeaway coffee, there is a good chance it is going to be served in a plastic-coated paper cup. This mix of materials is not conducive to easy recycling. Firstly, there is the problem of which bin to put it in, paper or plastic. Then, even if it gets to the recycling stage, this mix of materials requires specialist recycling facilities that are few and far between.
The scale of the recycling problem for this type of coffee cup is massive. One article published on the BBC website estimates that only 0.25% of disposable cups will make it to a recycling facility. While recycling is a lofty goal that we should all aspire to, the composition of many types of disposable cups make it difficult to achieve.
- The Scale of the Problem – The convenience of a hot beverage on the go is something that many of us enjoy and which fits nicely into a busy lifestyle. So much so that according to Earth Day, we use over 500 billion disposable cups annually.
When this figure is combined with the recycling stat above, the result is that nearly 499 billion of these are destined for landfills, oceans, and our countryside. If that isn’t scary enough, break the figure down further, and it works out that every hour of every day, we use over 57 million cups that will never be recycled.
These are bleak statistics that emphasise why it is essential that this problem is addressed immediately.
Types of Plastic Disposable Cups
Before we look at how compostable coffee cups that are plastic-free and use a water-based coating for liquid proofing are a sustainable solution, it is worth looking at the plastic equivalents in a little more detail.
Plastic-coated Paper Cups
As already discussed, this type of cup makes recycling extremely difficult and, more likely or not, will end up in landfill sites. While there are exceptions, most “non-biodegradable” cups of this sort use a Polyethene (PE) coating (known as polyethylene in the US).
This is nasty stuff and left to its devices, it will remain with us for up to 500 years. The problem is compounded by the thinness of the coating, this means that it easily breaks up into small fragments that in many instances will end up in the food chain.
There is a slightly more sustainable option in the shape of Polylactic Acid (PLA) coated cups. PLA is a plant-based plastic that can be composted and biodegrades quicker than the PE equivalent. However, while this is a step in the right direction, it is far from being a perfect solution.
The problem with PLA is that ultimately it is still plastic, with many of the inherent problems associated with the material. While it does break down when left to its own devices, the process still takes decades, around seventy years in fact. This is far from ideal, and the problems don’t end there.
PLA claims to be compostable plastic, and to be fair, this is the case. However, what isn’t so widely known is that PLA needs to be composted in a commercial composting facility. This material needs to be composted at temperatures of 60° C or above, chuck this in your home composting bin and for decades to come, it will remain steadfastly plastic!
Polystyrene Disposable Cups
Polystyrene cups are not as popular as they once were, and this can only be considered a good thing!
For decades these were the mainstay of the takeaway beverage sector. They are lightweight, easy to manufacture, cheap, and offer excellent thermal insulation. However, there are also associated health risks with the material, and of course, they have a nasty habit of lingering for centuries after being used for just a few short minutes.
The scale of the polystyrene problem cannot be overstated. One report by the Green Dining Alliance estimates that 30% of landfill site usage by volume is Styrofoam, one of the most common forms of polystyrene. This figure will only increase due to the small quantities that ever get recycled and the expected 450-year plus lifespan of the material.
This is pretty grim reading, but it gets worse. The same report estimates that 20% of all Styrofoam is destined to end up polluting our waterways.
The Solution – 100% Compostable Cups
It is unrealistic to demand that businesses simply stop serving takeaway drinks, for many, this is a mainstay of their business model, and livelihoods are at stake. However, the tide is turning against these types of cups. A mix of consumer awareness and government legislation means that one way or another, the era of the plastic disposable cup is drawing to a close.
Many retailers are waking up to this and running schemes that offer hefty discounts to customers that bring their reusable cups. This is to be applauded and is a definite signal that consumers and businesses are increasingly aware of the problems we face.
But it still isn’t ideal, for many people carrying a cup about all day is not a practical option, and it also doesn’t account for those spur of the moment decisions when an urge for caffeine suddenly strikes.
For businesses to continue reaping the benefits of a healthy takeaway sector, the only realistic solution is to offer customers their drinks in a truly sustainable way – Enter the aqueous coated paper compostable disposable cup.
What are Aqueous-Coated Compostable Cups?
The plastic-coated paper cup has become synonymous with the takeaway drinks industry. The plastic coating is there to serve a couple of purposes. Firstly, it adds liquid-proofing, which is obviously essential, but it also adds thermal insulation properties.
These are critical factors if a cup is to do what it is designed to do, but it is also at the heart of the problem. However, aqueous-coated cups replace the plastic coating with a water-based coating that makes recycling and composting simple, as shown below.
- Composting – Unlike their PLA equivalent, these can be composted in any home-composting bin. There is no need for higher temperatures or commercial facilities to begin the composting process.
- Biodegradable – Forget centuries or decades, this type of cup biodegrades at roughly the same rate as a sheet of newspaper does. In other words, a few weeks is all it takes for these cups to harmlessly biodegrade.
- Recycling – This type of cup can be disposed of in any paper recycling bin for easy recycling.
- Sustainable – Responsible manufacturers will ensure that their compostable coffee cups are manufactured using materials that are sustainably sourced.
As well as bringing huge environmental advantages, businesses that make the switch can also find that these cups bring a boost to business. Consumers are increasingly making purchasing decisions based on the environmental impact of their decisions, and this can give retailers using these cups a definite edge over the competition.
But ultimately, it is for the good of us all to ensure that the age of the plastic cup comes to an end. Thankfully, waiting in the wings is the perfect solution to make sure we all get that much-needed caffeine shot that makes the morning commute or extended shopping trip much more bearable.
The final sip
With the world teetering on the brink of an ecological disaster of biblical proportions, every little step we take in the right direction is a definite plus. It might not seem that way as you sip your takeaway coffee, but the chances are that cup that you drank from for fifteen minutes will outlive you, your children, and your children’s children. That is a scary thought.
It is time for retailers to step up to the mark and stop selling beverages in such environmentally devastating containers and for consumers to make their feelings known by only using coffee shops that have the planet’s best interests at heart.