Australia’s plastic plan: Are compostable coffee cups & bags the best alternative?

Holly Szakal
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April 3, 2024
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Australia is well known for its stunning landscapes and vibrant, culturally invigorating cities. The country has recently made global headlines for its proactive and innovative stance on environmental conservation. Notably, a study by the Pew Environment Group and Nature Conservancy reveals that over 40% of Australia (the equivalent of 3 million square kilometres) remains untouched, pure nature. 

In recent years, Australia has witnessed its plastic pollution levels escalate to alarming heights. With this comes the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) implementing a ban on plastic bags and packaging starting January 1, 2024, thus advancing a significant stride towards a greener country. Similarly, a ban on single-use coffee cups has been actioned, starting in Western Australia.

But how will these bans on both single-use cups and bags affect coffee businesses? Sustainable alternatives, such as compostable coffee cups and bags, could be the solution. 

To better understand how businesses are adapting to the country’s plastic plan, I spoke to Abdullah Ramay, the Chief Executive Officer at Greater Sydney’s Pablo and Rusty’s Coffee Roasters

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Understanding Australia’s ban on single-use plastics & non-compostable coffee cups

Let’s start with the plastics ban. This affects plastics of many shapes and forms, from coffee bags to carrier bags featuring handles of any thickness. Beyond this, the band includes any paper or cardboard that incorporates a plastic laminate. Additionally, it contains non-woven polypropylene bags weighing less than 90 grams and lacking stitched seams. 

The National Plastics Plan outlines Australia’s objectives and strategies for mitigating plastics’ adverse environmental effects. It encompasses measures that target plastic production, consumption patterns, and end-of-life processing, including recycling initiatives. 

Beyond these, the state of Western Australia has also banned single-use non-compostable cups starting in March, with fines of up to AUD $25,000 for non-compliant businesses. The aim is to stop cups from ending up going to landfill.

Running in parallel, the National Waste Policy Action Plan outlines comprehensive strategies for sustainable consumption and waste management, with specific recommendations for plastic management. Given the widespread use of plastic in Australia, this plan represents a significant advancement towards resource management accountability. The ban comes as no surprise to the public, with the country’s relationship with plastic pollution being tumultuous for far too long. Research shows the country generates 2.5 million metric tonnes of plastic waste each year, which equates to 100 kilos per person. 

Of this amount, only 12% is recovered for recycling, with 84% sent to landfills. Furthermore, 130,000 metric tonnes of plastic used by Australians end up in the vast marine landscape annually. This waste often finds itself in waterways, posing a severe threat to the abundance of marine life surrounding the continent. The ban is a crucial step in curbing this destructive trend. 

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How will the ban affect coffee businesses?

For Australian coffee businesses, the ban presents both a challenge and an opportunity. 

Takeaway coffee cups, for instance, often contain a plastic inner coating. That said, takeaway coffee is considered a key part of the region’s coffee culture, with surveys averaging 2kg of coffee per Australian per year. Beyond this, buying coffee to brew at home has always been a popular choice—even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With the ban on plastic packaging and takeaway coffee cups, businesses must adapt practices to align with not only the new regulations but also consumer sustainability expectations. Many businesses are embracing innovative solutions to navigate this transition. Some have opted for reusable compostable cups, encourage customers to bring their own, or offer branded alternatives for purchase. 

Others are exploring compostable coffee bags for takeaway packaging, ensuring that their commitment to sustainability remains unwavering. Speaking to several coffee establishments, it’s evident that adaptation is key. 

Abdullah explains that Pablo and Rusty’s Coffee Roasters were among the earliest adopters of compostable cups.

“This was almost a decade ago. We have been using certified industrial compostable cups for many years. Recently, we switched to certified home compostable cups. We have also tried various types of compostable packaging.

“Unfortunately, we lack the necessary infrastructure for home and industrial compostable materials to effectively break down,” Abdullah explains. “In particular, the high temperatures and lack of moisture in many parts of Australia can make it difficult for home compostable materials to decompose properly, especially in domestic compost bins or piles. Additionally, most local councils in Australia can not sort and process home compostable packaging in their waste management facilities. This is an area that we’re continuing to advocate for systemic change, both at a local, state and federal government level.

“Therefore, we and our wonderful customers have been well prepared and ahead of this trend. Some states [are likely to] move to sugarcane or other paper-based lids. These can divide opinions, as some customers do not like the tactile, texture, or mouthfeel,” he adds. 

“In some states, like Western Australia, clear cups for cold drinks will no longer be allowed as they move to paper-based compostable cups. This will impact businesses that rely on visual appeal in a takeaway setting,” Abdullah says, citing bubble tea as an example. “It’s important to continually engage and communicate with the customer on the impact of packaging and any costs and price increases.”

In addition to changes in packaging, Australian coffee businesses are also re-evaluating the sustainable practices of those in their supply chain. Sustainable sourcing practices have become non-negotiable for the standard Australian coffee consumer, with almost 40% of the country admitting to caring about sustainable practices when making purchases. 

As a result, more coffee businesses are now sourcing beans from Fair Trade-certified farms and opting for carbon-neutral shipping methods. By aligning their operations with ethical and environmentally conscious practices, coffee businesses can further reduce their own ecological footprint.

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Are compostable coffee bags and cups the best alternative?

Abdullah explains that in the cases where single-use cups are still needed, the best option remains compostable materials.

“In these cases, the least impactful choice should be used, which is currently a certified home compostable cup.

“We hope that none of our cups end up in general waste as they can be composted and help give good structure to compost, which is useful for growing plants and vegetables. We would love to see more infrastructure around end-of-life processing of compostable single-use and recyclable single-use and packaging in Australia.”

Abdullah also explains that Pablo and Rusty’s has embarked on a separate journey regarding its sustainable coffee bags, but that compostable materials are something the brand is actively looking into:

”We are still interested in and are testing at home compostable packaging. There are advances being made in this direction every year. There are innovations such as activating the composting process through certain enzymes, UV or other methods to balance product and safety with sustainability.”

As Australia takes decisive steps towards a plastic-free future, the coffee industry stands at the forefront of innovation. By embracing sustainable practices and prioritising environmental stewardship, businesses can not only comply with regulations but also contribute to a cleaner, healthier planet for generations to come. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable coffee packaging solutions made from natural sources such as kraft paper, rice paper, and LDPE with an eco-friendly PLA lining. We also give you the freedom to personalise every detail of your packaging, and our design team is always ready to help when needed. 

Our packaging solutions will both protect your coffee and provide consumers with a pouch that can be disposed of in compost heaps once empty. MTPak Coffee’s kraft paper and PLA packaging are certified by TÜV Austria as OK compost HOME and OK compost INDUSTRIAL, while our degassing valves are also compostable.

Images courtesy of Pablo and Rusty’s Coffee Roasters

For more information on compostable coffee bags, contact our team

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