A complete guide to compostable takeaway cups

Jane Merchant
May 5, 2023
An image of a compostable takeaway coffee cup made from compostable materials, kraft paper coffee cup, takeaway cups in an article on a guide to compostable takeaway cups

Until a few years ago, the word “compostable” was predominately used by people when describing the organic waste they toss in a compost heap in the garden to help enrich the soil. These days, it has become a common buzzword used frequently when discussing product packaging materials. 

While this form of packaging material has existed for ages, it is only recently that small businesses such as specialty coffee roasters or cafés have taken an interest in using it. This is due to an increased awareness of the importance of operating sustainably, as well as a growing customer base that values this trait in businesses they frequent. 

Unlike previous generations, today’s coffee drinkers are more well-connected and informed. Using the term “compostable” on coffee packaging and accessories, such as takeaway cups, is pointless unless roasters or cafés can prove the materials perform as intended under the appropriate conditions. Customers looking for reassurance from a business may second guess your product or takeaway packaging if you are unable to explain what it is made from, how to dispose of it, and what happens after it is thrown away.

Whether you already offer customers compostable takeaway cups or plan on doing so in the future, here is a complete guide to everything you should know about using this type of product. 

What does “compostable” actually mean?

In order to describe a compostable cup accurately, it is important to understand what the term describes. “Compostable” is a term describing organic materials that harmlessly degrade into the soil over time. The soil’s heat, moisture, light, and microorganisms help break the material down in a process that can take days, weeks, or years. 

Most importantly, these materials are non-toxic as they are derived from materials that disintegrate in specific environmental conditions. These conditions can range from a typical compost heap in your garden to a carefully controlled industrial environment. The latter type of material is used as the materials are less likely to degrade prematurely – an important aspect for cups that are carrying hot liquids.

Compostable materials are biodegradable: a term used to describe anything that will break down under certain conditions over time. However, it is important to note only materials that break down harmlessly and without harming the environment can be considered compostable.

Several of these materials exist. The type commonly used to line compostable paper takeaway cups is polylactic acid (PLA). In this scenario, PLA is a bioplastic made from plant-based starches and acts as a waterproof lining. Notably, it is conditionally compostable, which means it is unable to break down in a landfill or garden compost heap. Instead, it will degrade much like traditional plastics and produce harmful emissions. Therefore, PLA items must be carefully collected, cleaned, and industrially composted to prevent environmental damage.

An image of a coffee consumer disposing of a compostable takeaway cup, compostable takeaway coffee cup, guide to compostable takeaway cups

Challenges of using compostable takeaway cups

At first glance, these takeaway cup options can seem like an option free from negatives. While it may cost slightly more, it can be a highly effective way to show customers a business cares about curbing plastic pollution. Furthermore, these types of cups provide customers with the power to make better decisions by choosing a “guilt-free” form of single-use packaging when they get their daily coffee fix.

The challenges come when you select a compostable cup without thoroughly investigating and understanding its true capabilities. A recent study demonstrated what could happen when roasters fail to do so. In the study, researchers requested participants to bury compostable takeaway cups and other items in open mesh bags in a compost heap for 24 months. After time passed, researchers found over 60% of items labelled as home compostable failed to break down. They also found that despite requesting participants only include home compostable items, some added industrially compostable ones, suggesting confusion on what the term means. 

Even if customers are educated, offerings such as these still require a guaranteed collection and processing facility to ensure they remain separated from other waste forms and can be broken down and recycled properly. As most collection and processing facilities are unable to tell the difference between the two materials, sustainable materials and standard plastics are often mixed up. When this happens, it can keep the entire batch from being recycled.  

An image of several compostable takeaway coffee cups made of compostable materials, kraft paper takeaway coffee cups, on an espresso machine in a cafe, guide to compostable takeaway cups

Selecting takeaway cups that meet your needs

Now you have a better understanding of what compostable cups are and how to use them, you can make better choices for your business. Before investing, you should investigate whether your business and its customers have access to a closed-loop system where PLA is exclusively collected, sorted, cleaned, and composted. 

This may require you to investigate if your local council offers collection and pickup, and if not, how you can personally facilitate the process to ensure the cups are properly disposed of. For instance, you could facilitate a cup return programme, allowing you to send them back to the supplier or place them in a dedicated collection box provided by an organisation like Terracycle. These boxes can be filled with PLA-lined cups and returned to Terracycle when filled for appropriate composting or disposal.

Education is another aspect of offering customers these cups. This means educating them on what they are made of, how they can be thrown away after use, and what happens to them after they’re taken away. There are many ways to do this:

  • Standardise packaging — You can create clarity by using clear, universally recognised symbols for recycling PLA-lined cups, where applicable. Most bins use the number seven to mark themselves as able to take on PLA products. 
  • Offer details — Remember, your cup has limited space for you to explain your packaging choices in detail. You can include a scannable QR code which directs customers to a website or page outlining your packaging choices in more detail. Providing this information will help customers comply with what is needed to compost used cups.
  • Ask questions — Your customers’ needs can evolve over time. Getting feedback from them can help prevent issues with compostable cups before they occur. More so, you can offer a free cup of coffee in exchange for them answering a few questions about their experience with similar cups.

At MTPak Coffee, our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable materials such as PET, bamboo fibre, and kraft paper, with an environmentally friendly PLA lining. Our cups are available in three sizes: 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 24oz. In addition to being strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable, our cups can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to customise your cups to your specifications, allowing you to feature your brand logo or recycling instructions. 

For more information on sustainable takeaway cups, contact our team

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