Compostable coffee cups: Which bin do they go in? 

Tori Taylor
April 22, 2024
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According to recent research, approximately 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are used in the UK every year, which translates to around 7 million cups being discarded every day. Consumers in the US dispose of around 16 billion to go cups a year. As the specialty coffee industry continues to prioritise eco-friendly packaging, it is clear more sustainable options are needed.

Compostable coffee cups have become one of the largest investments being made by specialty coffee outlets looking to reduce their environmental impact. They break down completely without leaching toxic residue into the surrounding environment.

That said, when offering compostable coffee cups, brands must understand how they need to be disposed of in order to pass this information along to customers. 

I spoke to several brands that use compostable coffee cups to learn more about their lifecycle and which bin they should go into. 

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Which bin do compostable coffee cups go in? 

One of the largest challenges surrounding compostable coffee cups is ensuring they reach a plant where they can be properly processed after use. Additionally, there are potential issues caused by some of the plastic alternatives used to coat the interior of these cups to make them waterproof. 

For example, polylactic acid (PLA) is a popular alternative to plastic coatings. Depending on the additives used, the weight of the coating, and its processing methods, it can be recycled or biodegraded in residential or industrial facilities. While a cup’s specific qualities differ depending on the manufacturer, cup size, and material type, most PLA-coated cups can be broken down in the presence of bacteria and fungi. These metabolise the cup into water, carbon dioxide, and organic compost. 

However, it’s important to note that PLA-coated cups are not engineered to break down in home composting environments. They must be collected for commercial composting to ensure they’re processed and broken down alongside food or organic products. Therefore, PLA-coated cups cannot be placed in traditional waste bins alongside plastic or paper. They do not belong in the recycling bin, as they must be processed by facilities that can compost biopolymers.

Compostable coffee cups should be plastic in organic waste bins. Essentially, takeaway coffee cups lined with PLA are compostable but are not suitable for home composting. PLA needs processing by an “industrial composting” facility, of which there are a few.

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How do compostable coffee cups break down?

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.

“Generally speaking, compostable cups can break down in three months – the average length of a composting cycle,” explains Emile Fourie, the co-founder of Ywaste Solutions in South Africa. He adds that “compostable coffee cups require oxygen to break down, which is why they should be diverted from landfills.” Landfills often layer tons of waste, creating an airtight and anaerobic environment. 

When compostable coffee cups break down anaerobically, they can release methane gases 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.

In an industrial composting facility, the conditions are specifically designed to maximise the process of decomposition. Temperatures are high, between 55°C (131°F) and 60°C (140°F), as this increases the number of microorganisms. Elements such as moisture content, aeration, pH levels, and the carbon to nitrogen ratio are carefully controlled. The final compost is then subject to quality control analysis to verify it meets compost specifications.

Around 170 such industrial composting facilities exist in the UK, for instance. However, most governments do not redirect food waste to them. The majority of food waste is processed by anaerobic digestion, rather than being allowed to compost properly in the presence of oxygen.

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Are compostable coffee cups better? What brands think

Meagan Thibeault is the blogger and social media influencer behind She Grows Coffee in Canada. She believes that in an ideal world, “single-use coffee cups would be made without plastic.”

She explains: “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.”

Meagan adds that “disposing of single-use coffee cups is complicated. 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,” she 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.” 

Michael Craig, the CEO of Creature Coffee Co. admits investing in sustainable packaging materials can be more expensive, but believes it is worth it. “I think if more companies decide to make that investment, they can help push the boundaries a little bit more as well,” he says. “I hope one day we can switch everything over to be fully sustainable or biodegradable.”

Creature Coffee Co. uses compostable paper cups and recyclable clear takeaway coffee cups. “We use paper cups for all of our hot beverages, while our clear takeaway coffee cups are often used for iced americano, cold brew, and iced lattes,” says Michael. 

At MTPak Coffee, we have the expertise to provide business owners and coffee roasters with disposable cups made from high-quality materials that are 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, and 24 oz. 

Our takeaway coffee cups are strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable. Beyond this, they can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature your brand logo, QR codes, or recycling instructions. Our use of digital printing allows us to offer customers a quick 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, reach out 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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