Why do compostable coffee cups sometimes confuse customers?

Tori Taylor
April 16, 2024
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For decades, takeaway coffee cups have been lauded for their convenience and critical 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. Several sustainable alternatives have entered the market, including compostable coffee cups, biodegradable options, and those that are recyclable. 

Until a few years ago, the word “compostable” was predominantly used to describe organic waste tossed in a compost heap. These days, it has become a common buzzword used frequently when discussing packaging materials. 

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

So, how can brands ensure that their compostable coffee cups do not confuse consumers and are disposed of correctly? I spoke to Saskia Blum, the director at Batch Baby, Emile Fourie of Ywaste Solutions, and Russ Bruguiere, the co-owner at KOS Coffee Roasters, to find out. 

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The confusion around compostable coffee cups

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

A 2019 study found that the majority of consumers are confused by environmentally friendly packaging labelling and are losing patience with the lack of recycling options available to them. In an interview, Tim Wilson, the owner of RawPac, said he believes the confusion over the term ‘compostable’ could lead to an increase in eco-littering by consumers who are buying this packaging in good faith to help the environment.

Additionally, he believes that consumers want plastic-free packaging but are becoming frustrated at the lack of public composting facilities and confused by mixed messages about what they can and can’t do with food packaging and coffee cups.

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How eco-friendly are compostable coffee cups?

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

“Most compostable food service products, such as takeaway coffee cups and cutlery, are often made ‌of polylactic acid (PLA),” explains Emile, who is the co-founder and managing director at Ywaste Solutions in South Africa. “Generally speaking, compostable cups can break down in three months – the average length of a composting cycle,” he 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. 

Traditional petroleum-based 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. 

“It’s very challenging as a business owner to completely avoid single-use plastics without incurring considerable cost and limitations to the business,” Saskia 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.”  

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Ensuring customers dispose of compostable coffee cups correctly

“It’s important as a business or café owner to be as sustainable as possible,” Saskia adds. This is where Batch Baby leads by example. “We never considered using anything other than compostable products,” she adds. To address confusion around the disposal of these cups, 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.

Russ Bruguiere, the co-owner at KOS Coffee Roasters, US, explains that the brand’s sustainability initiative often dictates the managing the business. “We’re a zero-waste facility, from our kitchen and cafe to the roastery,” he says. “Additionally, we’re 100% plastic-free. All of our to-go cups, lids, and straws are 100% compostable, and we compost all of our used coffee grounds and chaff.” 

MTPak Coffee provides years of experience and industry knowledge to deliver to business owners and roasters the right disposable coffee cups that are made from high-quality printable materials and are also kind to the environment. Our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable materials such as bamboo fibre, PET, or kraft paper with an environmentally friendly PLA lining and are available in different sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz, 12 oz, 22 oz, and 24 oz. 

Our takeaway coffee cups are strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable and can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature your brand logo or recycling instructions. Our use of digital printing allows us to offer customers a fast turnaround and shipping time. This allows us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.

For more information on compostable coffee cups, talk to 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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