No time to waste
A growing number of takeaway coffee cups are landing in Australian landfill. One company is determined to help close the gap on waste solutions.
Imagine walking down the street and placing your takeaway coffee cup in a stand-alone bin instead of a generic waste or recycling container. Well, the idea could soon become a reality.
As part of a joint initiative between City of Sydney, Queensland Government and Australian Packaging Covenant, environmental organisation Closed Loop Environmental Solutions conducted a trial to tackle the impact of Australia’s coffee cup addiction on landfill.
Specially designed bins were placed in three office buildings of around 700 staff each in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane in November 2016 to make the case for a dedicated takeaway coffee cup recycling facility.
Over the four-week trial, more than 12,000 cups were colleced. At Sydney law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), 4278 coffee cups were placed in the dedicated bins, 4296 cups were collected at Brisbane City Council, and 3561 cups at the Melbourne venue.
The City of Sydney supported the Sydney trial with a $17,500 grant. Lord Mayor Clover Moore says Sydney’s café culture is world renowned, with baristas producing thousands of excellent coffees every day, but discarded takeaway cups were having a serious environmental impact.
“Although the exterior of a takeaway coffee cup is paper, an interior liner made from plastic takes the cup about 50 years to break down in landfill. These takeaway coffee cups are presenting us with a major environmental dilemma,” Clover says.
“We don’t have a dedicated recycling facility in Australia that can deal with the coffee cup structure, so the billion coffee cups sold every year end up in landfill. If we stacked all the coffee cups discarded annually in Australia, they would stretch from the Gold Coast right around the eastern and southern coast along Highway 1 all the way to Perth and back again.”
The trial from HSF resulted in 1.4 coffee cups being recycled per worker each week. If this were replicated at offices across the City of Sydney area, more than 25 million coffee cups could be diverted from landfill every year.
Closed Loop Solutions’ Brendan Lee says the trial proved that office workers could recycle takeaway coffee cups if given the opportunity.
“We saw similar results between Sydney and Brisbane, and the office workers were such strong advocates for the project – they really got behind it,” Brendan says. “It starts with a shift in mentality. We encouraged them to flip, tip, and slip: flip to remove the lid that’s recyclable, tip the cup residue out, and slip the cup into the collection tube. They quickly got into the habit.”
Out of 1000 cups collected, incredibly just four lids were found.
“We think the message got through,” Brendan says. “In fact the office workers protested when the trial finished and we had to take the bins away.”
Before the trial, participants completed a survey asking them about their recycling habits. One of the questions asked: ‘where do you put your finished paper coffee cup?’
To this, a third of respondents said ‘the recycling bin’, another third said ‘the waste bin’, and the rest said ‘I don’t know, whatever’s closest.’
“The majority of people thought that by simply placing cups into a recycling bin meant they were recycled, but that’s the biggest misconception,” Brendan says.
“Recycling trucks come and collect the material, then go to a sorting facility of co-mingled products. Paper coffee cups move through the recycling sorting process like cardboard. They are directed to a cardboard pulper, but are actively excluded by the pulper because the material can’t be broken down due to their liquid-proof liner. The cups are instead sent to landfill where they mix with other waste, such as metals from batteries and paint, etcetera.”
For paper cups to actually decompose, Brendan says they need to be in an environment where they are exposed to oxygen, water, and microorganisms in the soil. In landfill, this doesn’t happen.
Brendan says a recent sample of a New York landfill found a perfectly preserved 1920s newspaper, meat, and carrot because they sat in a compressed, oxygen-depleted environment and didn’t have the adequate environment to decompose. It’s the same for paper cups.
Unfortunately, Brendan says there remains a misconception about the difference between what is biodegradable and what is recyclable.
“In many ways, they’re throwaway terms unless there are the right collection processes,” he says. “Something that is biodegradable means that it should dissolve into the earth, like a leaf, thanks to bacteria and microorganisms, but paper and compostable cups can’t unless they are taken into an adequate composting facility. Something that’s recyclable, on the other hand, will be turned into a new product, not left sitting in landfill.”
As such, Brendan says it’s better for cafés to use paper cups that are collected separately rather than “biodegradable” ones.
“The sad reality is that Australia lacks a sorting facility that can reprocess our 1 billion cups in the appropriate way,” Brendan says.
Australia has access to reusable cup companies who are doing their part to reduce the country’s cup wastage, but for the majority of coffee drinkers, the impact of cup waste remains a contributing environmental factor.
As such, Closed Loop Solutions is actively recruiting a technology provider who can reprocess cups to establish a facility in Australia, including the paper outer, the polyethylene liner, and even the lids.
Brendan says Closed Loop Solutions are hopeful of having a reprocessing facility established in the next 12 to 18 months.
A similar program in the United Kingdom is already available where used coffee cups are shredded and combined with plastic polypropylene and a special polymer. The output is suitable for making carry trays, placemats, coasters, reusable coffee cups, outdoor furniture, and construction materials. The facility can also process other paper-like materials such as milk cartons and juice and milkshake cups.
The UK program has already recycled more than 7 million cups.
“The UK is more progressed in their recycling solutions that Australia currently is,” Brendan says. “But our recent pilot project shows us that there’s enough environmentally conscious coffee drinkers who want their coffee cups collected and separated using a clean, simple, and efficient system. It can be done. We could save tens of millions of cups from landfill every year.”
The Australian facility is an estimated $5 million investment, but Brendan says it’s a “small cost for a long term” environmental solution.
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