Understanding the lifecycle of compostable coffee cups

Janice Kanniah
August 5, 2022
Understanding the lifecycle of compostable coffee cups

Compostable coffee cups have become a popular option for coffee shops and roasters looking to reduce their environmental impact. 

As the global compostable packaging market is estimated to reach a value of $32.43 billion by 2028, there has never been a better time to make the switch.

That said, it is a choice that comes with responsibilities – many of which do not end once the cup is handed to the customer. Instead, those responsibilities end once the coffee cup has been composted into mulch. 

A 2021 survey found 68% of consumers were willing to pay more for more sustainable products, up by 10% from a survey taken in 2019. However, they are also more likely to question if it is a genuinely sustainable product.

While roasters and coffee shops can offer compostable takeaway coffee cups, they must know what happens to them after disposal in order to address customer concerns. 

To understand more about the lifecycle of compostable coffee cups, I spoke with Emile Fourie, the co-founder of Ywaste Solutions in Cape Town, South Africa.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Sign up
An image of a barista pouring black filter coffee into compostable cups in an article about the lifecycle of compostable coffee cups

Why are compostable coffee cups so popular?

Over the past decade, the plastic pollution crisis has reached its tipping point. 

Less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled, and the volume of plastic produced per person has doubled between 2016 and 2020. As the global population continues to grow, demand is likely to increase.

In addition to causing pollution, these plastics can leach harmful endocrine disruptors and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the environment.

Often referred to as “forever chemicals”, these substances can change how hormones are used in the body and have been linked to several diseases. 

Paper cups have also fallen out of favour as the petrochemical polyethylene (PE) coating makes them difficult to recycle.

That said, countries such as Australia and India have banned single-use plastics, while many others are in the process of phasing it out. 

A growing number of businesses are striving to operate with more sustainable values in mind, while others want to get ahead of potential plastic bans. 

This is where compostable coffee cups come into play. Made from natural materials, they can break down in the environment over time.

That said, compostable coffee cups may not be all be made from the same materials or break down under the same conditions. 

“Most compostable food service products, such as coffee cups and cutlery, are often made ‌of polylactic acid (PLA),” says Emile, who is also the managing director at Ywaste Solutions. 

PLA is a plant-based bioplastic made from renewable resources, including cornstarch and sugar cane. It offers a strong, waterproof coating that can support both hot and cold liquids without affecting the flavour of the drink.

Additionally, it is able to dissolve harmlessly into the soil under specific conditions.

An image of a customer breaking a compostable coffee cup in an article explaining the lifecycle of compostable coffee cups

What is the lifecycle of a compostable cup?

Emile explains compostable cups are often tossed away as general waste, which means they end up in landfills or are incinerated. 

They can also be diverted to a composter along with shredded food and garden waste. 

“Generally speaking, compostable cups can break down in three months – the average length of a composting cycle.”

That said, compostable cups require oxygen in order to break down, which is why they should be kept out of landfills.

Landfills often layer tons of waste, creating an airtight and anaerobic environment. This means PLA coffee cups will struggle to compost and often remain intact or break down anaerobically. 

When compostable coffee cups break down anaerobically, they can release methane gases into the atmosphere, which have been linked to global warming.

If the cup remains intact, it may be incinerated in order to prevent it from taking up space in the landfill. 

Furthermore, there is a difference between a cup that must be composted industrially and those that can break down in a home compost heap.

Some compostable cups are able to break down in a typical garden environment, while others require carefully controlled temperature settings and surroundings.

Emile cautions roasters and coffee shops against assuming compostable cups will get composted unless they can control or oversee its disposal and composting.

“The biggest assumption is that all compostable packaging is good for the environment,” he says. “However, the area still has little governance and protection. The other assumption is that it all gets composted, which is sadly not the case.”

An image of an espresso machine with compostable coffee cups on top next to a full hopper in an article explaining the lifecycle of compostable coffee cups

The responsible way to offer compostable cups to customers

One way coffee shops and roasters can better facilitate responsible waste disposal is by partnering with a reputable waste management company. 

Emile says the company should be able to provide transparent and traceable proof that their compostable recycling waste is correctly diverted from landfills. 

Notably, waste collection facilities often have specific requirements for waste collections, which roasters and coffee shop owners should keep in mind. 

For example, they may request that compostable cups be rinsed before disposal, or kept in designated bins.

To facilitate this, businesses will have to encourage customers to place their used compostable cups into these bins. 

This means consumers will have to be educated about why they have to dispose of their cups in this way.

To do this, both roasters and coffee shops can consider incentivising consumers by offering a free coffee or voucher for returning a certain amount of used compostable cups. 

Instructions can be printed directly on the cups, alongside branding, to help keep the message top of mind and relevant to customers.

Investing in compostable coffee cups can help a business reduce its reliance on single-use plastics and lower its carbon footprint.

That said, it will require roasters and coffee shops to make an effort to understand the nature of compostable cups, and ensure they are disposed of correctly.

An image of a compostable coffee cup in an article explaining the lifecycle of compostable coffee cups

MTPak Coffee can help provide you with compostable cups and address your questions concerning them.

We offer 100% compostable coffee cups in three different sizes: 4oz, 8oz, 16oz, and 12oz. Made from PLA and kraft paper, they can be customised to ensure customers know how to dispose of them correctly.

Furthermore, we can use digital printing to customise your cups or coffee sleeves, with a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time. This allows us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging and takeaway cups, no matter what size or material.

For more information on compostable takeaway coffee cups, contact our team.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Sign up

MTPak recommends