Disposable Items: Throwing away disposable culture

Disposable Items: Throwing away disposable culture

Do all disposable items like coffee cups end up in landfill or can some be recycled? Baking Business clears up the confusion and finds out how you can stop coffee cups from ending up in a hole in the ground.

According to Planet Ark, Australians send roughly 2.7 million disposable coffee cups to landfill every day. If you saw the ABC’s War on Waste, which aired in May this year, you would have seen presenter Craig Reucassel travelling through Melbourne in a tram stuffed with 50,000 disposable items or cups. The stunt was a visual representation of the amount of cups they estimate are going in the bin every 30 seconds. Whichever figures you go with, it’s a big number and definitely cause for concern.

War on Waste declared disposable coffee cups non-recyclable, and said 100 per cent of them end up in landfill. Since then, the internet has gone wild with claims the War on Waste got it wrong, and that some coffee cups are, in fact, recyclable.

So what’s the answer? Well, it depends

You see, disposable coffee cups are lined with plastic to make them waterproof. While both elements of the cup—the paper and the plastic—are recyclable, when they go through a recycling plant together, the paper contaminates the plastic and the plastic contaminates the paper.

To complicate this, there are two types of lining that can be used for waterproofing. One is made from polyethylene (PE), the other from bioplastics. Packaging companies BioPak and Detpak both have ranges that are lined with bioplastics, and claim their cups are recyclable because this lining is more readily dissolved during the recycling process.

So, coffee cups with a bioplastics lining should be accepted for recycling, right? Well, it depends on the recycling company. Planet Ark recycling programs manager Ryan Collins says regardless of the type of lining used, coffee cups should be accepted for recycling by companies that recycle milk and juice cartons, because they are “basically made from the same materials”. If a company doesn’t accept milk and juice cartons, they’re not going to accept coffee cups either, irrespective of the lining.

That said, even a coffee cup that ends up at the right recycling facility might not be recycled, depending on the way a coffee cup behaves as it travels through the plant. If a cup is picked up as paper or cardboard, it will most likely be recycled. The plastic will dissolve (some more readily than others) and the cup will end up as recycled paper or cardboard.

On the other hand, if the cup goes through the plastic process, it will be picked up as a contaminant and end up in landfill.

“Best practice would be to flatten empty cups to allow them to behave like cardboard as they go through the recycling facility,” Ryan explains.

None of that will help, though, if your council doesn’t use a recycling company that accepts disposable items and coffee cups. Some companies refuse, claiming coffee cups degrade the quality of their end product—the recycled paper or cardboard—and that this leads to a lower market value. The only way to know if the recycling company your council uses accepts coffee cups is to ring and ask.

But what about compostable cups? According to Ryan, this may be viable depending on the location of the café and the costs involved. There are a limited number of industrial composting facilities in Australia, and business owners would need to talk to their waste contractors.

All of this is confusing and, it seems, dependent on where you’re located. Thankfully, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation is convening a working group (The Polymer Coated Paperboard Working Group), which is made up of recycling companies and disposable cup manufacturers. The group is working with retailers and all parts of the supply chain to find a way to prevent disposable cups ending up in landfill. We’ll stay tuned for the outcome.

In the meantime, there is another solution. Given the resources that go into producing disposable coffee cups (we’re talking water, energy, paper and oil), perhaps we should do away with disposable items and cup altogether. As Ryan says, disposable cups “have a lifespan of a matter of minutes”. Using them, he says, promotes a throwaway culture. Coffee cups are a significant litter issue with reports suggesting they are the second largest contributor to pollution after plastic bottles.

Encouraging your customers to bring their own cup cuts out the need for disposable cups. This idea has been pushed by Responsible Cafes, an initiative that encourages coffee outlets to offer a discount to customers who bring their own cup. Since the War on Waste aired, the number of businesses signed up to Responsible Cafes has increased from 450 to more than 2000.

“Becoming a Responsible Cafe saves money from disposable cup purchasing and reduces waste, while incentivising customers to do the right thing,” Ryan says, adding that while all reusable coffee cups are better than disposable ones, his preferences are cups made from stainless steel or glass.

In June, Justin Bonsey, who founded the Responsible Cafes initiative, sent a survey to the cafes signed up to the initiative to gauge how things were going.

“On average,” he told Broadsheet, “[businesses signed up to Responsible Cafes] are saving 29.5 cups from landfill a day. That represents around 16.2 million cups a year.”

Casey Cumming from Wild Ryes, a bakery and roastery on the far south coast of New South Wales, says they stock a range of reusable cups, including cups made from glass and sugarcane plastic.

“We’ve always sold a few,” she says, “but since the War on Waste they’ve been walking out the door.”

Sally Richardson from Forrest General Store in Victoria says she has had a similar response.

“I’ve been offering the discount for two years; the War on Waste has helped to raise awareness,” she says.

“Some people are embarrassed if their cups are dirty and others say they forget to bring them. I tell them just to leave their cup in the car and I’ll wash it for them when they come in.”

So, what can individuals do to help stop the waste?

1. First things first: Call your council and find out if they accept disposable coffee cups for recycling.

a. If they do, encourage your customers to flatten their cups before placing them in the bin, and point them towards the paper or general recycling bin. If you’re using BioPak cups, go to their website for a list of councils that accept their cups for recycling.

b. If they don’t, consider using compostable cups or investigate companies who will pick up spent cups and turn them into something else. Simply Cups is a program that sells disposable items and coffee cups and also has a collection program for the used ones.

2. Offer customers a discount for bringing their own cup—50 cents appears to be the going rate. Then, sign up to the Responsible Cafes website ( and register your business there. That way, customers looking for a store that offers a discount can find you.

3. Consider stocking a range of reusable cups so customers can purchase them straight from you. There’s a huge range on the market such as KeepCups, Cheeki, Kleen Kanteen and Frank Green (which makes SmartCups and SmartBottles that include an embedded chip from which customers can make payments). Many businesses offer their customers their first coffee free when they buy a cup in-store.

4. If you’d like to know more about recycling, Planet Ark offers a step-by-step toolkit for small businesses. Find it online at

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