Australians have a love affair with coffee, each year using an estimated 1 billion disposable coffee cups. That's approximately 2,700,000 paper cups tossed out every day. So it's no surprise that new cup recycling schemes are popping up. But do they actually work? Firstly, we need to remember that recycling doesn't change the amount of waste created. Instead, it minimises resources lost by diverting material from landfill and transforming it into a new material. Sounds good in theory, but China's recent ban on low-grade recycling materials has come into effect exposing the limitations in Australia's waste management industry which relied heavily on co-mingled recyclables (and China's willingness to accept them).
We must also consider the infrastructure and logistics involved with these single-product resource recovery schemes. With extra collection costs and additional trucks required to transport the materials, do these schemes make sense?
Cup recycling schemes fail to address the larger waste crisis
Cup-only recycling solutions will not solve our waste crisis. This will create a fragmented response to waste management that misses out on economies of scale. Australians send more than 1.8 million tonnes of plastic and 1.7 million tonnes of paper waste to landfill along with more than 8 million tonnes of organic waste cup waste is only the tip of the iceberg.
Special collection points add complexity to waste collection, the logistics and costs required to collect a single packaging format create additional burden on a struggling recycling industry. In these schemes, waste disposal and collection become more convoluted and labour-intensive for consumers and business owners.
UK consumer-reliant cup recycling schemes unsuccessful
In the United Kingdom, coffee industry giant Costa introduced a cup recycling scheme in 2016 but only recovered 3 percent of cups. Costa's scheme, and similar schemes being rolled out in Australia, rely on the consumer to bring the cup to a specialised collection point which, turns out, rarely happens. Admitting defeat, Costa's managing director Dominic Paul said 'We can't force customers to bring them back. We have realised that we have to do something much more significant.' Costa's scheme, and similar schemes being rolled out in Australia, are failing due to low return rates from consumers and the fact that they do not have a viable economic model. The heart of the issue is collections and the value/income collectors can receive to make it economical for them to deliver coffee cup waste to the recycler.
Composting a proven solution
Composting is a proven solution and part of the existing recycling infrastructure that will be further developed to process the 7 million tonnes of organic waste currently being landfilled in Australia.
Councils across Australia and New Zealand are investing in their residential compost collection. Recovering and composting organic waste content disposed of in not only food and organics green bins but also their general waste bins. The results: diversion of 60 percent of the general waste stream from landfill, including compostable coffee cups.
Compost collection and compostable foodservice aren't just a growing industry locally. In the UK, there are over 100 facilities accepting and organically recycling certified compostable paper cups and lids.
Zero waste disposable coffee cups
Council-run organic waste collection is on the rise, making composting a sustainable and more widely available alternative to single-stream cup recycling schemes. With compostable cups and lids accepted with organics and food scraps, composting is more accessible for consumers as well as being a dramatic move towards zero waste.
As for cup recycling schemes, if the additional infrastructure and resources required to implement single-product recovery exceed the resulting economic value and fail deliver real-world environmental benefit, then are these 'solutions' even sustainable?