For decades, takeaway coffee cups were lauded for their convenience and role in bolstering coffee shop revenue streams. In more recent years, however, the environmental impact of these disposable cups has been thrust into the spotlight.
As the world grapples with the issue of single-use cups and their contribution to plastic pollution, a vital conversation emerges in the coffee industry: Between recyclable coffee cups and their compostable counterparts, which option holds the key to a sustainable future?
I spoke to Saskia Blum, the director at Batch Baby, a speciality coffee shop in De Beauvoir, Hackney. She discusses the issues surrounding both recyclable and compostable coffee cups, from their strengths and weaknesses to disposal and consumer preferences.
The growing importance of eco-friendly coffee cups
The recycling rate for the 400 million tons of plastic produced every year worldwide is less than 10%. This is according to the World Health Organization. In the UK, the recycling rate for single-use plastic cups stands between 2% and 4%. The figure was estimated at 5% for plastic waste in the US.
This is a pattern that’s all too familiar within the coffee industry. Billions of disposable coffee cups are discarded every year, with only a tiny fraction being effectively recycled.
While many tend to blame the ‘throw-away culture’ for the pollution, it would be unfair to ignore the challenges involved in recycling plastic materials. Traditionally, the majority of single-use cups were made with petroleum-based plastics, which are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.
Plastics take at least 20 years to decompose, with certain types persisting for an astounding 500 years. That is after their production has used significant amounts of energy, water, and trees, which doubles the carbon emissions involved.
“These are valid concerns”, says Saskia, but she’s quick to note that finding a solution hasn’t been easy. “It’s very challenging as a business owner to completely avoid single-use plastics without incurring considerable cost and limitations to the business,” she explains.
However, doing away with traditional plastic still remains the most effective way to lower its environmental impact. More countries across the world are enforcing both partial and full bans on single-use plastics, among several other measures. The United Nations End Plastic Pollution Mandate initiative also continues to fuel the global push towards sustainable packaging options.
To comply with these bans and initiatives, many coffee roasters and cafes have invested in sustainable alternatives such as recyclable bioplastics, and compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable coffee cups. At Batch Baby, Saskia notes the brand now uses “decent packaging and compostable coffee cups and lids.”
Recyclable coffee cups vs compostable: The pros & cons
Both compostable and recyclable coffee cups have been embraced by businesses eager to take the sustainable path.
Saskia had a similar observation. “There has definitely been an increase in access to compostable and recyclable materials,” she said, adding that there seems to be a concern for smaller businesses to use and provide alternatives to single-use plastics.
Yet, as more alternatives to single-use plastics emerge, misinterpretations have become more common. A notable example is the difference between recyclable bioplastics and biodegradable plastics.
Recyclable coffee cups
Most recyclable cups are made from paper and lined with plastic, both of which are recyclable. Pulped wood chips are often used to create the paper while polyethylene (PET) still remains more desirable as an inner coating because of its lower costs and usability.
How the two materials are bonded often determines how challenging it will be to recycle them. While the plastic lining makes up less than 5% of the cup, that alone is enough to prevent recycling. Not to mention other factors, such as the inks used in any customisation, and how the cups are collected.
Batch Baby chooses not to use disposable cups if it can be avoided. “Occasionally, when there are supplier issues, we use recyclable straws,” Saskia notes. “But generally, we stay away from any recycled plastics and single-use plastic.”
What many don’t know, however, is that PET can be recycled to create fresh products. In such a circular economy, the possibilities become even more interesting when using recyclable bioplastics as opposed to petroleum-based or biodegradable plastics such as polylactic acid (PLA).
The bigger challenge, however, is that very few facilities have the capacity to recycle these cups. In the UK, for instance, only four facilities accept paper cups for recycling. This explains why more recyclable paper cups still end up in landfills.
To minimise this, more shops are placing collection bins for recyclable cups in convenient locations. Beyond this, brands are encouraging customers to return used cups in exchange for discounts on their next purchase.
Compostable coffee cups
Notably, compostable coffee cups have been around for a long time. However, it’s only recently that more coffee businesses have adopted them, fuelled by a growing commitment to sustainable practices and a heightened awareness of consumer preferences.
For Saskia, it was the former. She says “It’s important as a business or café owner to be as sustainable as possible.” This is where Batch Baby leads by example. “We never considered using anything other than compostable products,” she adds.
Most compostable coffee cups are made with natural materials such as corn starch, woodchips, or recycled food waste: all of which breaks down harmlessly over time. That said, just because these cups are created with biodegradable materials does not imply that they are better for the environment. Ultimately, they retain the characteristics of traditional plastics and have to be disposed of correctly to mitigate their environmental impact.
For instance, PLA, which is popular in compostable coffee cups, only biodegrades successfully in controlled environments. This means the material may not decompose in a landfill as it lacks the appropriate conditions. Additionally, scientists from University College London recently carried out a study where it emerged that most ‘home compostable’ plastics actually failed to break down. Consumer confusion due to poor labelling played a role in this.
To address this, Saskia says the brand communicates directly with its customers. “When anyone asks, we do inform them that all products are compostable. It’s also written on the cups,” she explains.
However, simply educating consumers won’t suffice; businesses have to develop robust waste collection and processing systems that ensure proper recycling and biodegradation.
Which coffee cups do consumers prefer?
In 2021, the global market for biodegradable cups reached a value of $458.1 million, surpassing the $450 million mark for recyclable cups at the close of 2022. By 2031, the biodegradable cups market is projected to soar to $1.1 billion, while the recyclable cups market is expected to reach $754.2 million.
From these findings, it appears the market for biodegradable cups will grow at a faster rate than that for recyclable cups. And it’s easy to see why.
Every year, the plastic waste crisis worsens. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the current plastic waste is twice what we used to produce a decade ago. Therefore, it’s unsurprising to see consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable goods.
“Generally people are happy with our compostable cups,” notes Sakia. While biodegradable plastics present challenges beyond composting, compostable coffee cups are still a far superior way to reduce plastic waste and will continue to be a popular option for environmentally conscious consumers and businesses.
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: 4oz, 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.