Dr Matt Morris from UC’s Sustainability Office looks at the issue of compostable and recyclable cups and shares thoughts on some of our campus experiences.
Takeaway culture has meant that the volume of disposable packaging in our global waste stream has increased to staggering levels; estimates vary, but perhaps 500 billion disposable cups are thrown away annually across the globe (58 billion in the US, 2.5 billion in the UK, almost 1 billion in Australia). In Aotearoa New Zealand, 100-200 million disposable cups are used annually.
When we at UC were first told, back in 2013, that takeaway coffee cups would soon no longer be accepted by our recycler, we knew we had to do something. Takeaway cups had become a classic waste issue, and we were extremely unhappy about this retrogressive change. So ahead of the change, we introduced a trial to collect coffee cups and send them away for composting. Blue Bins specifically for coffee cups began to appear on our campus. Since then our small trial at UC has diverted around 50,000 cups from landfill.
For those who ask, “why can’t they all just be composted?” or, “why can’t we just only use compostable cups?” there is a long-winded answer.
There are many kinds of takeaway cups on the market. Each brand of cup may need a different treatment – and this is way beyond what anyone can manage locally. Generally, these have water-proofing lining in them. Sometimes this is wax or polyethylene. Sometimes it is a poly-lactic acid (PLA) plastic lining. ‘Compostable’ cups also have this PLA lining, which is derived from plant materials. This lining is partly what prevents cups being accepted now for recycling, because it needs to be stripped out before the paper can be made usable again. Practically no one can do this currently. And for compostable cups, that PLA is often derived from corn starch that has been made from genetically modified corn.
Then there is some important consumer education to do. Cups are notoriously contaminated: think milk foam and soggy marshmallows, or how they get used as mini-rubbish bins for apple cores, pie wrappers and god knows what else. And don’t get me started about lids. We really want to encourage our UC community to only put cups in the blue bins – with nothing else in them (please!). We have invested in signage that is as explicit as we can make it to limit contamination at the front end.
At the back end of our system we have someone sorting the cups so what we send away is clean – it is great if she does not have to sort through anything other than cups (another good reason to not contaminate the blue bins!) Our trial has been mostly focused on testing how people will use a separate collection point for coffee cups and what kind of resource would be required to maintain this system. So far, we think it has been a success.
So, what are we doing with these cups?
At UC we sell a mix of cups that claim to be recyclable or compostable (remember, these are very different). For the first loads, we sent mixed cups to two composting facilities Selwyn and Waimakiriri District Council facilities, and the results were good. We didn’t test for any chemical residue, but the composting part worked fine. However, that option came to an end, and we are now having the cups baled until a better option is developed. Luckily, that is in process.
Three composting trials of compostable coffee cups and other ‘service ware’ items have been undertaken in Christchurch this year, and the results are extremely promising. All of the trials were successful, in that the packaging all broke down sufficiently. This is great. For UC, this means we understand a lot more about which products we could require vendors to sell.
There are still challenges. For example, Living Earth cannot take all the compostable packaging: some has the PLA lining and, as a BioGro certified organic company, they cannot take product that is derived from GMO materials. The fact that it has been denatured and contains no genetic material is not the point; upstream production of the raw material is also taken into account.
It is an evolving process, and we need to remain responsive to opportunities as they arise, always keeping our eyes on the prize: finding new ways to send our waste to the earth as safely as possible.
Want to reduce waste further? It’s Plastic Free July