No time to waste: Could a coffee cup ban work?

single-use plastics ban

Two years on from the War on Waste movement, BeanScene looks at what has actually changed in the Australian coffee industry and the efficacy of a single-use plastics ban.

Thousands of Australians order coffee to go from their favourite cafés every day, leaving with their precious beverage safely contained in a roughly eight-ounce paper cup. For many of them, once the coffee is gone, the cup is no longer of any use and disposed of without a second thought. That’s the problem.

Gary Smith, CEO of compostable packaging manufacturer BioPak, says coffee cup waste is emblematic of a wider issue facing the food service industry, making up a fraction of the 1.8 million tonnes of food packaging that goes to landfill every year. On the bright side, he says sustainable changes are being made across the industry.

“The shift towards sustainable packaging has been aggressive in the past year,” Gary tells BeanScene. 

“If you look, you will notice far less plastic in food service. Large companies are getting involved too. Woolworths has replaced plastic bases for its cakes, biscuits, and fruit with sugar cane pulp-based alternatives and Qantas announced it will remove 100 million single-use plastic items per annum by 2020.”

Although part of a wider issue, coffee cup waste has seen increased awareness since 30 May 2017, when ABC series War on Waste aired an episode addressing the impact paper coffee cups were having on the environment.

The show saw host Craig Reucassel ride around the streets of Melbourne in a tram filled with 50,000 disposable coffee cups, the estimated number sent to landfill every half hour because they supposedly couldn’t be recycled in Australia.

While many in the coffee and packaging industries knew of the issue and had tried to address it, for most consumers, it was news to them.

In 2017, ABC’s War on Waste host Craig Reucassel brought attention to the impact paper coffee cups were having on the environment.

Detpak General Manager of Marketing and Innovation Tom Lunn says while War on Waste raised public awareness, the sustainable packaging manufacturer has seen growing discussion on the industry’s waste issue within business circles for some time.

“The specialty coffee industry has been concerned about packaging for many years. These are the same people and companies pushing organic and single origin coffee and supporting coffee farming communities. That end has always considered sustainability,” Tom says.

“I think the mainstream coffee retailers, however, have become more aware of consumers being concerned about their packaging. Even then, I think most of the brand owners have been aware of the issue for some time but haven’t had the technical options to address it.”

The episode led to many consumers choosing reusable cup alternatives and cafés began offering discounts or incentives to those who brought their own coffee cup. 

However, Dr Robert Crocker, Deputy Director of the China Australia Centre for Sustainable Urban Development and Senior Lecturer at the University of South Australia (UniSA), says these discounts do little to influence consumer behaviour. 

“Very few people are influenced by monetary incentives unless it is quite substantial,” Robert tells BeanScene. “Coffee is cheap to most people, so 50 cents here or there is not going to necessarily change their habits.

“You’d have to raise incentivisation considerably, maybe a dollar or more, for people to really take notice. Or, make the takeaway more expensive instead of offering a discount for reusable cups.”


Robert and his colleagues recently led a study into the cultural and institutional drivers behind coffee cup waste. 

“In many cities, [disposable coffee cups] are now the second most common form of litter. They’re a nuisance at every level and like plastic bags, they block drains and don’t break down,” Robert says.

“We also don’t really know how many are produced in the world, or even in Australia, because once something enters the waste stream, it becomes very difficult to track or enumerate.”

single-use plastics ban
In 2017, it was estimated 50,000 disposable coffee cups were sent to landfill every half hour.

Researchers conducted more than 20 in-depth interviews with café owners, baristas, and consumers to understand what influenced their behaviour. They also revisited the pilot program of a local council in South Australia that saw local cafés receive rebates for providing sustainable alternatives.

“Our study basically confirms what a lot of other studies have found: incentivisation programs don’t have much effect, or at least don’t have the kind of effect many people assume them to,” Robert says.

“What we did find, however, was that War on Waste and its shot of a tram full of coffee cups had a profound effect on a lot of people. Many people we spoke to that had changed their minds were influenced by that image. [The show] really got people thinking about this, that’s very important.”

Robert says that while changing individual’s minds is important, there are cultural factors contributing to coffee cup waste.

“There is now so much more pressure on the consumer to do more in an average day. I regularly go to a café where the local emergency response workers get coffee. Many of them hang around to drink their coffee but order it in takeaway cups anyway because it’s so ingrained in our culture. Their boss would be angry if they sat down to have a break,” he says. 

“This is one of the reasons why we can’t blame [coffee cup waste] on the consumer. We’ve shaped this ‘on the go’ culture through mobile phones, work pressures, and many other factors.”

Robert says this means the consumer alone should not carry the burden of reducing coffee cup waste.

“We need a level playing field where the government sets the rules and we develop a system where certain kinds of nuisance packaging is banned,” he says.

“The unrecyclable standard should be outlawed everywhere, because like the plastic bag, the cost is picked up by the rest of us.”


It may not be long before the government does take action on coffee cup waste, and single-use plastics more generally. In early 2019, the South Australia, Western Australia, and Australian Capital Territory governments all revealed they were considering single-use plastics bans.

single-use plastics ban
The ACT Government is considering a ban on some single-use plastics, which would include disposable coffee cups.

Detpak’s Tom says the advantage of government legislation on single-use plastic is that it can set parameters for how companies should address the issue.

“At the moment, there are lots of different approaches because no-one knows what the clear objective is,” he says.

“There are definitely risks, but ultimately, Detpak’s view is we’re better off actually doing something and if the government wants to choose a path, the industry will find a way to make it work.”

ACT City Services Minister Chris Steel proposed the territory ban single-use plastics on 19 February 2019 while discussing a review of its plastic shopping bag ban and released a discussion paper on the topic in April.

Chris tells BeanScene that the ACT hopes to lead the rest of Australia on addressing single-use plastics.

“Beverage containers make up a large part of the waste stream, and of that, coffee cups are a small but significant portion,” Chris says.

“[Coffee cups are] used by people on a daily basis and one of the first things people think of when it some to single-use plastic waste. Having it as part of the discussion paper is important because people and local businesses in the ACT care about reducing their reliance on plastic-lined coffee cups.”

Through the discussion paper, the ACT Government hopes to consult with consumers, businesses, and industry on how best to implement legislation. Chris suggests a rollout of the ban could begin by “dealing with some of the low hanging fruit” contributing to plastic waste.

“For each different single-use item – from coffee cups to cutlery – there may be certain products we look at as part of a staged approach,” he says. “For example, plastic-lined foam coffee cups – which in my view are a relic of the 1980s – are clearly not good for the environment and have clear alternatives which are more likely to be recycled.”

The ACT Government has set itself the target of recovering 90 per cent of waste that goes to landfill by 2025. This goal combined with the success of its 2011 shopping bag ban, action in Europe, and consumer awareness, led to its focus on single-use plastics.

“The main concern from our perspective is the waste of resources. Around 50 per cent of plastic produced goes to landfill in the ACT and a lot of this could be reused or recycled,” Chris says.

single-use plastics ban
Dr Robert Crocker of UniSA, believes consumers should not be solely responsible for reducing coffee cup waste.

He adds that a solution will need to be practical for businesses and industry as well as consumers.

“We need to think about what the costs are and see if we can work with [manufacturers] to help design out some of the problems,” Chris says.

He encourages interested parties to share their opinions on how the territory should address single-use plastics waste.

“Part of this discussion is figuring out from business and industry what the best alternatives are and what approaches the government should be taking,” Chris says.

Should the government institute a single-use plastics ban, BioPak’s Gary says it will also need to invest in the infrastructure to support it.

“We can educate the consumer on how to dispose of their cups, but in many areas, those options aren’t available for them to do that sustainably,” Gary says. 

“For an end-of-life option and to recover resources from alternative materials, the government needs to build the infrastructure.”


Conflating the issue of coffee cup waste is debate over the best course of action to address it. UniSA’s Robert says consumers are still confused over whether or not a cup is compostable or recyclable, the difference between the two, and which alternative is ‘better’.

“Our research made it clear a lot of consumers are confused about what is compostable and what is recyclable,” Robert says. 

Traditional takeaway coffee cups are made of paper with a thin, plastic lining to prevent liquid damage. This lining is what causes paper mills problems when processing the cups, as it cannot be separated from the paper shell without specialised equipment.

Instead, BioPak produces compostable coffee cups and food packaging, and has set up a service that collects its packaging – and food scraps – then takes it directly to composting facilities around the country.

BioPak’s Gary says coffee cups and other foodservice packaging is frequently contaminated with food and beverage residue, which makes conventional recycling impractical.

single-use plastics ban
Compostable, recyclable, and reusable coffee cups have been suggested as alternatives to single-use disposables.

“Compost systems thrive on food scraps, so contamination is not a problem. This makes composting  the most efficient and effective way of diverting foodservice packaging from landfill and returning nutrients back into the soil,” he says.

“Using compostable foodservice packaging made from renewable resources not only addresses the pollution caused by the production and use of conventional plastics derived from fossil resources, it will facilitate the transition towards a more sustainable circular economy.”

To address some of the flaws in the mainstream recycling process, Detpak has established its RecycleMe system, with recyclable coffee cups and collection points at participating venues, where consumers can easily separate the cups, plastic lids, and liquid – preventing contamination – when they dispose of them.

Paper collection company Shred-X collects this material and delivers it straight to paper mills, ensuring the cups are recycled into paper products. Detpak’s Tom says it is important for any government action on single-use plastics to not limit the ability of manufacturers to create recyclable products.

“If [legislation] favours composting over recycling, it will limit the development of truly circular economy options,” he says. “While composting is an expedient answer, and suitable in situations where industrial composting infrastructure exists, it could distract people from chasing recycling. Paper can be recycled up to seven times, and while composting diverts the used cup from landfill, it means the valuable resources are only used once.”

UniSA’s Robert commends companies like BioPak and Detpak which are attempting address coffee cup waste.

“I’m full of admiration for these companies – they try to walk the talk,” Robert says. “But, without uniformity, standardisation, and regulation, its costs they bear themselves.”

This article appears in FULL in the June edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe HERE.

Read more:
Cup of truth
Takeaway coffee cups may be banned by 2023
South Australian Government considers banning takeaway coffee cups
Second state/territory considers coffee cup ban
WA and ACT release discussion papers on single-use plastic bans

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