We understand better than most just how important your morning coffee is. Whether you’re making it at home or picking it up on the way to work (or both), we would never deny Australians their daily caffeine.
Our problem is that we fundamentally disagree that our coffee needs to come at such a high cost for the environment. Putting the guise of convenience aside, takeaway coffee cups are a nightmare, particularly when it comes to recycling!
Waste is a Design Flaw
Consider the life cycle of a disposable cup – the amount of energy and resources put into the production of takeaway coffee cups, for only a few minutes of use before they end up in the bin. Statistics show that 50,000 takeaway coffee cups are thrown out every 30 minutes, and around 90% of these go straight to Australia’s landfills.
Each year, this means that approximately 1.8 billion takeaway coffee cups end up in landfills. They are one of the most prolific pieces of litter, yet, only a handful are independently recycled. Greenwashing and wish-cycling would have the average person believe they can pop them in the closest recycling bin, but the harsh reality is that this ‘innocent’ paper cup is usually lined with polyethylene, and is topped with a pesky plastic lid (read our blog on lid recycling to find out more).
It’s What’s on the inside that counts
To ensure that takeaway coffee cups are functional, they have to be liquid resistant and well insulated. To achieve this, there are three types of lining that manufacturers can choose from:
- Plastic Lined Cups, the most common option
- Bioplastic or PLA Lined Cups, the most widely available ‘eco-friendly’ alternative
- Aqueous Cups, new technology on the market
Plastic Lined Cups
Most takeaway coffee cups are lined with polyethylene, or PE plastic on the inside of the cup. They are not recyclable in Australia due to the combination of materials that the cup is made of (paper or plant fibre, with plastic lining) and the challenges associated with separating and recycling these materials. They are also not compostable, and will not break down in landfill.
Bioplastic Lined Cups
In Bioplastic lined cups, the petroleum based plastic lining from traditional cups is replaced with a layer of plant based plastic, such as Polylactic Acid, or PLA. These cups are widely distributed as an eco-friendly or compostable alternative, and are labelled compostable.
However, this means commercially compostable, so these cups should be sent to an industrial composting facility where they can be industrially broken down with human intervention. The Australian standard for commercial composting AS 4736-2006 certifies plastic to be 90% biodegradable at 60°C or higher, within 180 days.
They are NOT recyclable, and should not go in your yellow bin, as they will contaminate the stream. Instead, they require proper disposal to ensure they are processed correctly, yet only around 10% of councils in Australia will accept them in their commercial composting facilities as NSW has recently banned compostable packaging from being disposed of in the FOGO green bin.
Use the button below to check if your council accepts compostable packaging in the FOGO bin, and reach out if any of the information needs updating.
Aqueous Cups, or cups with a water based dispersion coating (also known as ‘aqueous dispersion coating’, or ‘barrier polymer dispersion coating’) use a technology involving particles of petrochemical-derived polymers (polystyrene or acrylic) dispersed in water to create the coating rather than a solid layer of PLA or PE. As a result, it cannot be marketed as “plastic free.”
As the coating is typically less than 10% in total weight, it will easily pass home composting, commercial composting and paper recycling tests as certifications focus on the disintegration of the total product, hence why these cups can be branded as both industrially and home compostable. These cups will break down in 10-24 weeks in your home compost without leaving residue behind, but always check for certifications on the cup or the suppliers website.
The Australian standard for home composting AS5810-2010 guarantees a plastic product to be 90% biodegradable at 20-30’C, within 180 days. The material should then be tested on plant germination, plant growth and earthworms which ensures respect to biodegradability and toxicity claims. Along with edible cups, aqueous cups are the only ones that can be home composted, making them the most widely accepted and easily compostable alternative to single use plastic and bioplastic.
Every State For Themselves
To us, the obvious solution is to phase out takeaway coffee cups nationwide. But this is a small piece of a much larger challenge when it comes to single use plastics. Australia has very little consistency across states as to what is banned and when. WA and South Australia are leading the charge and have put in place laws to ban takeaway coffee cups in 2024, but other states and territories have their own timelines.
Since its inception in May 2018, Simply Cups, Australia’s first coffee cup recycling program, has diverted over 36 million coffee cups from landfill. With 1558 collection sites at the time of writing, the program collects all types of coffee cups and turns them into higher value industrial and consumer products. Check the map to find a collection point near you!
2023 NSW Young Australian of the Year, Lottie Dalziel, also featured in the latest season of War on Waste, launched the first volunteer-led and run recycling program, BRAD. The program aims to increase the small recycling rate of 4% in Australia, and includes coffee cups that are sent to Simply Cups.
Planet Ark has a map where you can find a recycling point near you that accepts coffee cups and lids.
The Impact of Reducing Coffee Cups
Even if we had an adequate recycling solution, we drastically need to reduce how many takeaway coffee cups Australians are using, and research suggests that business owners will benefit almost as much as the environment. Check out the findings of a study conducted by WWF to research Australia’s takeaway coffee cup consumption and the effect of reducing it by less than 30%.
Choose to Reuse
Head to our Instagram or browse our website to find guides and resources to help your local cafes encourage reusables. Between swap systems and mug libraries, cafes can save money and the environment!
With our network of Responsible Cafes working towards ditching single use, we can see a future where takeaway coffee cups are a relic of the past. Until then, stay vigilant when deciding what goes in your recycling bin, and remember your keep cup!
In collaboration with the ABC and the new season of War on Waste, our nationwide BYO Friday campaign kicked off alongside Plastic Free July with the aim of reducing waste and promoting the habit of reuse!
Content creator and social media maven, Amy keeps our Cafes and fellow waste warriors connected and updated across all of the Responsible Cafe socials. Passionate about inspiring positive change, sustainability, and performing, she can usually be found filming and editing videos with her furry sidekick, Banks!