If you care about money or care about the environment or care about climate change, ignore coffee cup recycling and instead focus on organics (particularly food), which represent around 50 per cent of all waste to landfill in Australia.
On the other hand, Australians seem to be obsessed with take away coffee. It is estimated that approximately one billion single use coffee cups will end up in landfill this year. Sounds like a lot but this represents less than 0.0004 per cent of the waste generated in Australia per year.
So, although take away coffee cups are by no means the most significant waste problem, these days the public seems to be very aware of it and many cafes in Australia try to overcome it by offering more eco-friendly choices to their customers.
A significant issue with disposable coffee cups is the disconnect between their alleged recyclability and the rate at which they are actually recycled. Although technically recyclable, the fact that they are made up of numerous materials (see figure below) and are contaminated with liquid makes recycling very hard – in Australia only a very small proportion of coffee cups is recycled and only via designated cafes/companies.
This is not apparent to the public, not least because some coffee companies actively promote cups as recyclable. As a result, many disposable cups end up in the yellow top kerbside recycling bin contaminating the rest of the recycling stream.
Therefore, and given their high visibility with the public, it might be important we deal with disposable coffee cups for a few reasons – their contribution to litter, pollution and contamination of the kerbside recycling stream and as an iconic waste stream that generates community engagement.
Collecting disposable cups for recycling on any significant scale will have to include source-separated collections and facilities which will be ridiculously expensive and a waste of money relative to other material streams.
So far a number of solutions have been proposed to limit the use of disposable cups. Some cafes promote reusable cups by offering a discount to the customers who bring them along to the store. Others use compostable cups (but find that very few biodegradable cups are making it to compost). Some experts recommend a small charge on the disposable cup, the equivalent of the plastic bag charge. In Scotland, a “latte levy” of 25p per cup is being examined, based on evidence that charges are more effective than discounts in the use of disposable cups. In other countries like Italy or France, take away coffee is not a widespread option and some cafes in Australia are considering a no take away policy, on the premise that drinking coffee should be an opportunity to have a moment to relax.
In a different approach, a number of cafes and Sydney’s Inner West Council have collaborated to launch a Swap-and-Go reusable coffee cup scheme. Acknowledging that even if people own reusable cups, it is impossible for them to carry them at all times, the program will allow café customers to download an app and pick a free reusable coffee cup from any café that is signed up to the program and return it within 30 days.
It is obvious that addressing single use coffee cups is not a straightforward task. Recycling cups is not a viable solution at the moment. This could well change if different materials are developed. But such a move is not visible at the moment. And, in contrast to the plastic bags problem, the issue of disposable coffee cups has not been successfully addressed elsewhere.
The way things are progressing it seems that a combination of initiatives has the potential to limit the number of coffee cups that end up in landfill every year: promoting reusable cups, promoting compostable cups (and educating users so that they do get composted) along with FOGO, implementing a charge per disposable cup, penalising greenwash and banning non-recyclable disposable. To also address the litter issue, a deposit system fashioned in line with the Container Deposit Schemes (CDS) implemented around the country could be particularly effective in achieving source separation. Include a deposit when buying a coffee and get a refund when returning your cup to any coffee shop.
Critical to implementing these solutions will be a cultural and behavioural change including towards waste prevention and an agreement by all States to roll out such actions nationally and dedicate the revenues raised to community use.
My plea is that we get on with it so that we can turn our attention to food and other organic waste to landfill which is a vastly more important issue in terms of total tonnes and has a greater impact on the environment via methane emissions from landfill and climate change.
Dimitris Dimoliatis is a principal consultant at MRA Consulting.