Takeaway Coffee Cups...The issues ‘Unwrapped’

Posted on 03 April 2017

Who doesn’t love their morning coffee to-go? With three million cups enjoyed each day, it’s a real romance for most of us. Sadly up to a billion takeaway coffee cups end up in landfill every year and many in our oceans. They take years to degrade or just break into smaller pieces causing damage on land and in the sea.     

Here’s some business, industry and packaging expert advice on how to make your next coffee guilt-free.

Takeaway coffee cups are not recyclable

Due to the plastic resin inner lining (stuff called polyethylene), takeaway cups are not recyclable - even while they are mostly paper. It’s almost impossible to sort them out for recycling. Brendan Lee of Closed Loop says ‘They look like cardboard and behave like cardboard, but it isn’t and can’t be mechanically separated and would have to be separated by hand. This is obviously far too expensive to do.’

Biodegradable cups are not guilt free either!

Generally, biodegradable cups are great IF they are disposed of in a commercial grade composter, less so in a home compost bin. They cannot go in recycling bins*. If they are thrown in the general waste that goes to landfill, they emit climate-damaging methane gas as they break down; the very worst of the greenhouse gases.

Takeaway cups are ‘out’ and reusable cups are ‘in’

Reusable cups are on the rise. Benjamin Young of FrankGreen says ‘We have found that 50% of our customers have never used a reusable product before’.

Many do not go back to disposable cups once investing in a reusable.  The benefits and experience are continually improving. You can customize the colours that suit your style, grab discounts, loyalty or reward points from some cafes, and even pay with your cup using CafePay. ‘It’s all about behavior change and turning using reusables into habit and ritual. The rewards help create the habit’.

What can you do to help?

Aside from giving up coffee (never going to happen...), the experts tell us to:

  • AVOID using a takeaway cup – Sit, sip and relax in your local cafe.
  • REUSE if you’re having it on the go, choose one of many reusable products on the market, such as FrankGreen, Joco or KeepCups**.
  • Only accept biodegradable cups if you have a compost facility nearby.
  • If you must use a takeaway cup, put it in the general rubbish bin - not the recycling bin.


In the future

There are moves to shake up the recycling process to make it easier to separate out takeaway cups. Closed Loop and their partner organization the Australian Packaging Covenant, are trialing cup-only recycling bins in offices, to create a single waste stream that could attract a commercial market for them. This follows the success of Simply Cups in the UK which collects and recycles coffee cups into second-life materials using cutting edge technology.  Closed Loop are currently running trials in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, so watch this space.

In Bondi we like it ‘Unwrapped’

Waverley Council are working with businesses and the community and to tackle takeaway waste with the project ‘Bondi Unwrapped’. Businesses can access a free waste packaging assessment to help cafes and consumers make better purchasing decisions. To find out more, email [email protected]

Thank you for making litter-free and waste-less neighborhoods’ second nature.

NB: Please note that this information is most applicable to people living in Sydney, NSW and may differ from state to council.

* Check with manufacturer to be sure.

**This is not intended as an endorsement of these products. 

As first published in the Beast April 2017

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    commented on Takeaway Coffee Cups...The issues ‘Unwrapped’ 2017-04-26 16:13:16 +1000
    It seems as if the paper cup is the catalyst to address society’s over-consumption problems. Paper cups represent a very small amount of waste when looking at the issue in perspective. In Australia we currently send 18 million tons of waste to landfill every year. Paper cups accounts for 12 000 tons of waste. This is not to say its not a problem, however perhaps the problem is less to do with the paper cup and more to do with the overall low rate of recycling both locally and internationally.

    This article begins by saying paper cups are not recyclable. It would be more accurate to say the local recyclers do not want to recycle this product. It has nothing to do with the thin plastic coating on the paper, if this were the problem then how are these companies currently recycling all the milk and juice cartons that are accepted in our co-mingled household recycling bins. These packs are coated both inside and out with plastic and some even contain a layer of aluminium foil. In the ACT they acept paper cups in the mixed paper stream. On their website they say these cups are processed at the Visy Tumut facility – If Visy can do it at one of their mills then why is that service not available to all councils in NSW? http://www.act.gov.au/recycling/what-goes-in-the-yellow-bin/c#CoffeeCups

    Its also not accurate to say that biodegradability cups can only be composted. They could just as easily be recycled along with regular plastic coated cups – composting provides just another end of life option other than landfill. All paper that ends up in landfill will decompose and release methane gas not just compostable paper cups.

    The benefiits of compostable cups is not only that they can be composted, rather they are made using rapidly renewable bioplastics made from plants instead of regular plastic from fossil resources.

    Single use disposable food service packaging provides a hygienic, cost effective and practical way to enjoy food on the go. Just as nature produces more than 100 billion tons of biomass every year without any negative environmental impact we see a future where single use disposable food service packaging is produced from sustainably sourced rapidly renewable abundant materials that return nutrients back into the cycle once they have served their purpose.