What to consider when upcycling eco friendly coffee cups

Esther Gibbs
March 4, 2024
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Recent statistics show that beverage packaging makes up almost 90% of the total packaging market. Beyond this, at least 63% of this comprises flexible packaging items, such as takeaway coffee cups. However, customer preferences evolve over time, and the demand for sustainable alternatives, such as recyclable packaging and eco friendly coffee cups has increased. 

Additionally, many governments around the world are making this a legal requirement to combat packaging pollution. To reduce the carbon footprint of their products and contribute to a circular economy, more brands are upcycling items such as eco friendly coffee cups and used grounds.

But how are they doing this, and is it the most effective way to reduce waste? To learn more about what she looks for in eco friendly coffee cups, I spoke to Meagan Thibeault, the blogger and social media influencer behind She Grows Coffee in Canada. 

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Takeaway coffee cups and packaging waste

For a time, reusable options were put forward to help solve the widespread use of disposable coffee cups. For example, brands such as Fellow and KeepCup become popular because of their reusable cups made from materials like bamboo, metal, and glass. However, despite their popularity, studies suggest reusable coffee cups may not be as sustainable as people think. 

One study shows that it can take between 20 and 100 uses for a reusable cup to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions of a single-use cup. For ecosystem quality indicators, it can take more than 1,000 uses.

Typically, single-use coffee cups are made from a combination of paper and plastic – which can make them challenging to recycle. Even recyclable coffee cups must be disposed of in a manner and specific location to ensure they don’t end up in landfill. 

So, how can brands ensure that takeaway coffee cups are disposed of correctly? And what are the options for upcycling or reusing these cups before their end of life? 

She Grows Coffee captures Meagan’s journey of growing coffee in Canada and offers tips for other enthusiasts. She uses both her blog and social media platforms to bring awareness to ‌ deforestation associated with coffee. More so, she highlights her project that aims to restore forests in coffee-growing regions, starting with Honduras.  

Meagan admits that she would often take a reusable cup to a cafe whenever possible, avoiding single-use options altogether. That said, she encourages the use and proper recycling of disposable coffee cups when absolutely needed, and stresses the need for more local recycling facilities.  

“In an ideal world, single use coffee cups would be made without plastic,” Meagan says. “They’d be composed of 100% post-consumer content, like non-virgin fibre, with efficient and effective recycling facilities to support them. Alternatively, the source fibre would come from a more sustainable source, such as using hemp instead of trees. Then, recycling facilities wouldn’t be as necessary and perhaps composting could be prioritised over recycling.”

She adds that most ‘eco-friendly’ coffee cups are made using natural fibres sourced from trees. Admittedly, composting paper cups made strictly from natural fibres and vegetable-based linings is effective in theory. “However, from a life-cycle analysis perspective, it would be better if single-use paper cups could be recycled and made into new ones instead of having to cut down new trees for more cups.”

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Certifications for eco friendly coffee cups

It’s important to remember that eco friendly takeaway cups, such as those that are ‘compostable’ are available in a variety of categories. This is why it is essential to ensure disposable coffee cups are certified. 

For example, in the EU, brown bin certification means the materials meet certain standards and can be composted industrially. The criteria for the industrial compostability of packaging are specified by European standard EN 13432. By having certifications on compostable materials, brands can guarantee the product breaks down into organic matter. With biodegradable materials, on the other hand, there is an amount of non-organic matter left behind.

Other certifications, such as that from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) ensure the product has gone through tests and confirmed to meet the standards required. These certifications not only validate the properties of a product but can communicate disposal methods. 

It’s important for brands to convey disposal instructions on eco friendly coffee cups. Having compostable cups is something for a brand to be proud of and can help them appeal to a growing number of eco-conscious consumers. Beyond this, it’s a fantastic opportunity to connect and engage with customers about brand values. 

“Disposing of single use coffee cups is complicated,” Meagan says. “In many cases, the appropriate composting and recycling facilities don’t even exist. Ultimately, this is why I try to avoid [uncertified] single-use altogether.”  

“Personally, I don’t recommend that anyone composts cups in their own home compost,” Meagan advises. “Composting cups requires a lot of time and/or energy. They need to be broken down into tiny pieces and mixed with other organic materials to break down at a decent rate. It would take considerably more time and energy to break down than regular food-waste compost.” 

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What to consider when upcycling compostable coffee cups

Before reaching the composting site, a takeaway coffee cup’s life can be extended through upcycling at home. This may help to promote the decomposition of the materials and prepare them for quicker composting. Some popular uses for used coffee cups include pen, tool, or utensil holders, bird feeders, and scoops for pet food. 

Another popular option is to use compostable coffee cups to start seedlings. This requires customers to put holes in the bottom of the cup, fill it with soil and let the seedlings grow. If the cups are home compostable and contain an aqueous lining, they can be planted directly into a garden or allotment. The cups will then biodegrade within 4 to 8 weeks. However, it’s important to note that the material is created with decomposition as the goal, so they can go moldy. 

“I’ve seen people upcycling single-use cups to be used as seed-starting containers, which looks cute and can work,” Meagan says. “However, I typically opt to use recycled plastic plant containers for my seed-starting, as paper cups tend to get water-logged, break down, and become susceptible to mold over time.”

While Meagan admits that “one-off and upcycling types of solutions can be used on a small scale, on a global scale, it makes more sense to discourage single-use items. We should encourage proper recycling and facilities and the use of more sustainable natural materials, such as hemp, for single-use items when they are needed.” 

Discover how other coffee businesses reduce waste through upcycling

At MTPak Coffee, we offer fully sustainable takeaway coffee cups that can be made from either kraft paper or PET. Our cups are coated with more eco-friendly alternatives such as PLA, which is a plant-based bioplastic from renewable resources. Strong, lightweight and compostable, it is a good choice for roasters looking to reduce the impact on the environment and to communicate their commitment towards sustainability.

For information on our eco friendly coffee cups, contact our team.

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Esther Gibbs
Esther Gibbs

Esther has been in the specialty coffee industry for 14 years working as a Q Grader, SCA Trainer and ESTA trainer. She’s also offers her services as a coffee consultant through Hope Espresso. Her passion for writing comes from her love of sharing stories about the industry and ensuring knowledge is accessible to all.

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