The importance of certifications for compostable coffee cups

Tori Taylor
March 1, 2024
compostable coffee cups, eco-friendly coffee cups, takeaway coffee cups, disposable cups, takeaway cups, coffee cups,

Typically made from polystyrene (PS) or polymer-lined paperboard, disposable cups are often used as a cost effective and convenient way to consume takeaway drinks. However, due to variable recycling habits and waste management practices around the world, the majority of the 500 billion takeaway coffee cups used each year are discarded as litter. 

Disposable coffee cups contribute significantly to marine pollution, with impacts on marine biodiversity loss, as well on industries such as tourism, fishing, and shipping. Fortunately, over time, more eco-friendly alternatives, such as compostable coffee cups, have become widely accessible. 

Compostable coffee cups have become a popular option for businesses looking to reduce their environmental impact. Notably, research shows the global compostable packaging market is projected to reach $32.43 billion by 2028. Clearly, there has never been a better time to make the switch.

One of the most important factors to consider when investing in compostable coffee cups is their certifications. These will help consumers understand not only what makes the cup eco-friendly, but also how to dispose of it correctly. 

To learn more about the importance of certifications on compostable coffee cups, I spoke with Emile Fourie, the co-founder of Ywaste Solutions, and Phillipe Dewolfs, the business manager at TÜV Austria

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Defining ‘compostable’ coffee cups 

To define a compostable cup accurately, it’s important to understand what the term describes. ‘Compostable’  describes organic materials that degrade harmlessly 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 months. 

More importantly, these compostable materials are non-toxic as they’re derived from sources that disintegrate in specific environmental conditions. These conditions can range from a typical compost heap in a garden to a carefully controlled industrial environment. 

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.

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

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.

“Generally speaking, compostable cups can break down in three months – the average length of a composting cycle,” Emile adds. That said, compostable coffee cups require oxygen in order to break down, which is why they should be diverted from 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 gasses 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. 

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Understanding certifications for compostable materials

Sustainability certifications are important for all those in the coffee supply chain. They lead to greater transparency and are highly effective in communicating a genuine commitment to sustainability. The symbols printed on coffee bags and takeaway coffee cups help to instruct end-consumers about the materials correct disposal, helping to minimise waste and carbon emissions. 

The OK Compost certifications, for example, are a practical way to ensure takeaway coffee cups are 100% compostable. An OK Compost certification guarantees that all components, including inks and additives, are compostable in a specialised facility. For materials to receive an OK Compost certification, it must undergo rigorous evaluation and maintain strict quality standards.

“We work with local authorities and the government to audit compostable packaging, too,” explains Phillipe, who has worked at TÜV Austria for over four years. This extra scrutiny helps to keep the certification’s reputation and assure the public of the transparency of OK Compost-certified bags. Therefore, OK Compost certifications have various standards and labels for products dedicated to industrial and home use. 

Another certification to consider is one from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC was founded in 1993 to help promote responsible management of the world’s forests and ensure paper products, such as kraft paper coffee bags, maintain their environmental benefits. Serving as a market-based certification programme, it gives both businesses and consumers confidence in their purchasing decisions by acting as a recognised stamp of approval on products derived from responsible sources.

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What to consider when investing in compostable coffee cups

Certification logos and possibly even disposal instructions will have to be added to compostable coffee cups to ensure they are discarded responsibly. That said, traditional inks and printing methods often contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

These chemicals were often used to increase the viscosity of the ink or toner more fluid so it’s less likely to clog printing equipment and easier to apply to packaging. However, VOCs evaporate quickly at room temperature, meaning the chemicals are released into the air when the ink or toner is applied. As a result, they represent a significant contribution to a brand’s net air pollution

Luckily, several sustainable inks have been developed, which have a minimal impact on the environment and human health. These include:

  • Vegetable-based inks made from plant-based materials, such as soy or linseed oil.
  • Water-based inks made from blending water and pigments. 
  • Bio-based inks made from renewable natural materials, such as corn or sugarcane.
  • Low-VOC inks which closely resemble conventional inks, but contain a lower level of VOCs.

Customising compostable coffee cups with sustainable inks or through digital printing can help educate consumers about sustainability. In turn, this can ensure your takeaway coffee cups are composted properly and do not contribute to pollution. 

At MTPak Coffee, we understand the importance of looking after not only the world’s forests, but the entire planet for future generations. As such, we can guarantee that all our paper-based coffee packaging, including our kraft paper pouches and paper-based takeaway coffee cups, are from forests that have been certified by the FSC.

Plus, our kraft paper and PLA packaging and takeaway cups are certified by TÜV Austria as OK compost HOME and OK compost INDUSTRIAL. Furthermore, we offer a selection of completely recyclable and compostable coffee packaging alternatives produced from renewable resources like kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an eco-friendly PLA lining, all of which reduce waste and support a circular economy.

We offer sustainable coffee packaging in a variety of shapes, including shaped pouches, stand-up bags, flat bottom pouches, quad seal bags, side gusset pouches, and drip coffee bags. Furthermore, our range of corrugated kraft paper coffee mailer boxes is made from recycled cardboard and is available in a wide range of size options.

For more information on compostable coffee cups, contact our team

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Tori Taylor
Tori Taylor

Victoria is a highly experienced content creator, writer, and editor based out of South Africa. With the experience gained by working in newsrooms and writing for lifestyle magazines, she is now focussed on creating insightful and relatable content for the specialty coffee community.

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