For a small structure standing nine centimeters tall and typically holding eight ounces of liquid, the average paper coffee cup has done a great job of hitting news headlines for all the wrong reasons.
On 30 May, more than 750,000 viewers tuned in to watch the ABC series War on Waste, hosted by The Chaser’s Craig Reucassel. Craig rode around the streets of Melbourne on a decorated coffee cup tram, echoing “BYO coffee cup” to those sipping their brew out of a takeaway cup, and saluting those who held a reusable cup.
The show explored the impact paper coffee cups are having on our environment, and made the statement that an estimated 50,000 coffee cups are sent to landfill every half hour because they can’t be recycled in Australia, even if disposed in the recyclables that are transported to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). MRFs are responsible for separating materials into paper, glass, metals and plastics, and then forwarding these materials to downstream processors and recyclers such as paper mills.
What followed was a flood of conversation, confusion and questions from consumers, café owners, cup manufacturers, councils and industry members about the impact of our paper coffee cup addiction. The big question remains: are paper coffee cups recyclable or not? The answer, it seems, depends on who you ask.
According to BioPak, its BioCups are “definitely recyclable” because unlike regular plastic-coated paper, its polylactide acid (PLA) bioplastic coating is made from renewable resources that dissolve in the paper repulping process.
Manny Manatakis, Cleanaway’s National Sustainability Solution Specialist says the plastic film on traditional disposable coffee cups is typically skimmed or filtered by batch digester-processing paper mills.
Some authorities say disposable cups can’t be recycled because the plastic lining is difficult to extract from the paper during repulping, while others say it’s a matter of cost, labour, machine inadequacy, and food contamination.
Beneath the surface
According to The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), it is estimated that around 1.2 billion hot cups are consumed each year in Australia. Hot cups include coffee cups, but also noodles containers and similar pre-packaged foods.
“APCO acknowledges some of these disposable coffee cups (lids and bodies) end up in the recycling stream. There is limited data on how many are recycled,” says an APCO spokesperson. “What’s needed is further research into the capacity that individual sorting and recycling facilities in Australia have to do this.”
Through BeanScene’s own investigation and contact with councils, what was apparent was that an understanding of “accepting” paper coffee cups into a recycling steam and actually “recycling” them were two very different things.
Local councils collect disposed coffee cups placed in yellow recycling bins. Most are on-sold to recycling facilities and the 90-plus MRFs across Australia that accept truckloads of commingled recycling from council kerbside and commercial collections for sorting, which includes cardboard, plastic bottles, glass jars, steel and aluminium.
“Coffee cups are a very, very small part of the incoming feedstock at a MRF, and hence they are not usually targeted or manually removed,” says Garth Lamb, Business Development Manager of ReGroup, a company providing recycling and waste recovery services.
Garth says because disposable coffee cups are lightweight and usually crushed flat in the collection truck, they end up mixed in with other paper and cardboard products within the mechanical separation process at MRFs rather than in the small amount of rejected contamination that gets disposed to landfill. “This is why, from the MRF’s perspective, coffee cups are often considered recycled,” Garth says.
Disposable coffee cups are typically made up of a plastic lid that can be recycled in a plastics stream, usually made from a rigid polystyrene (PS); and a cup body made from liquid paper board (LPB), a combination of paper and plastic that’s either lined with polyethylene (PE) or PLA.
Milk cartons and juice cartons are also made of the same LPB lining as coffee cups and are “accepted” in mixed paper products through local government kerbside and commercial commingled recycling systems.
In order for paper mills to accept and recycle LPB in mixed paper streams, Anthony Peyton, Director of GreenChip, says the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ international paper recycling standard has a maximum allowance of three per cent polymer-coated fibre that can be contained in mixed paper streams, which consist of other white paper and cardboard.
Coined “out throws” in the waste industry, Anthony says it relates to lower grade paper such as LPB that can be processed at the paper mill – it does not mean that the LPB will be thrown out. However, paper mills have the right to reject bails if they deem the contents to produce an excessive amount of a lower-grade paper.
“Some will argue that the LPB of a coffee cup is a form of contaminant in mixed paper bails, however if anything, MRFs are more concerned about the contamination of paper due to disposable nappies, plastic bags and pouches,” he says.
The weight of the plastic in a mixed paper bale is important. Anthony says disposable coffee cups contain less plastic lining than milk cartons by percentage weight, and mixed paper bales include less than 0.5 per cent milk and juice cartons. Given there are twice as many cartons in the market (by weight) as there are coffee cups, the amount of plastic added to the mixed paper by the cups would be much less than that contributed by the cartons.
“You could then argue how much plastic and LPB should be allowed in mixed paper bails at MRFs, and whether milk cartons and products alike are really recyclable considering they contain four times as much plastic in them than coffee cups,” Anthony says.
Garth points to the general challenge of recycling items made from multiple materials: “This is an issue with many composite products, not just coffee cups,” he says.
Cleanaway’s Manny says the company’s initial studies of mixed paper streams have found that under 1 per cent of LPB out throws are being sent to paper mills to be recycled.
“The addition of 2000 to 3000 tonnes of coffee cups into kerbside and comingled recycling programs is likely to have little to no impact on national out throws averages [given their miminal plastic content],” he says.
Manny explains that out throws do influence rebates, however, because some paper mills pay a premium for mixed paper feed stock with a lower percentage of out throws.
“The quality of feed stock and the resulting value of rebates is important because they are an essential part of how we close the loop on recyclable commodities. Materials like cardboard and paper have a huge potential to be made into new products creating the economic case for recycling and driving the circular economy,” Manny says.
So if milk and juice cartons are being recycled in mixed paper bails, why can’t coffee cups?
According to GreenChip’s Anthony, a large component to the issue comes down to the physical structure of the coffee cup. “A coffee cup is a complex item, much more than people realise,” he says.
“One of the primary reasons why some disposable coffee cups are not recycled is because of their shape and therefore behaviour in the MRF. A coffee cup is a three-dimensional structure with a rigid base, but in order to be processed and recovered in the mixed paper stream, paper items need to be two-dimensional and as flat and wide as possible.”
Anthony recommends that consumers should fold the the base of the cup inwards, not from the sides. This same paper flattening theory applies to other three-dimensional paper/cardboard items, such as mobile phone boxes and egg cartons.
Anthony says that MRF machines are not designed to crush, just flatten. “All MRFs have the capacity to recycle coffee cups if they are flattened correctly,” he says.
If they are, and manage to get them into the mixed paper stream, paper fibres can be recovered though the pulping process at the paper mill. They will be combined with other papers such as newspapers and magazines and put into mixed bales for paper mills to reuse.
If the truck or consumer don’t flatten the cups sufficiently, Anthony says the 3D cups “bounce around” at the MRF. The sorting conveyor belt won’t recognise the item as paper, instead sending it into the plastics steam, or to landfill.
“Milk and juice cartons are larger [than coffee cups] but they too should be flattened by the consumer as widely as possible so they too reach the paper stream,” Anthony says.
Does this mean the solution for cup recycling could be as easy as producing a coffee cup that is easy to flatten? Maybe.
“What we need is consistency. At the moment, there’s no transparency, no central umpire monitoring the rules,” Anthony says.
This article features in the August 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine.
To view the FULL article, featuring additional comments on the commitments of cup manufacturers including KeepCup, BioPak, Detpak and The O’Kelly Group, subscribe here today: www.beanscenemag.com.au/subscribe