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Compostables in the Coffee Business

What’s the problem?

We are probably all aware of the work being done to make the coffee industry sustainable and eco-friendly. Most of this work is done at source – in the coffee farms and plantations by organisations such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade. Land use practices are being transformed, and care is being taken to preserve the biodiversity around the coffee growing areas.

So what’s the problem? Is enough being done? The short answer is “No”. The long answer is that the coffee business is one of the biggest users of single-use, disposable containers. It is a classic trope, two detectives on stake-out sipping from take-out coffee cups. The office junior sent on a coffee run to the nearest Starbucks, coming back with a tray full of large size paper cups full of lattes etc.

Is there a single coffee drinker who has not recently taken a coffee to-go, in a paper cup with plastic lid, and if an iced coffee, then include a plastic straw? I doubt it very much. It is part of our lifestyle and we don’t give it a second thought. Perhaps we assume because the cups are paper they are recyclable, or biodegradable. Unfortunately not!

The majority of disposable coffee containers are made from tree pulp, and lined with leak-proof polyethylene plastic (PE) made from petroleum products. They cannot be recycled and although they will eventually decompose, it can take around 30 years. That is a long time to have millions of them in landfills.

So, what is the solution?

In an ideal world, everything that is not reusable and is discarded into the rubbish should be compostable – able to decompose naturally in a reasonable time frame, like potato peelings, and become part of the soil. This can happen, but it requires investment in scientific studies and new technology to find different materials that can actually do the same job without causing problems for the consumer. Materials that have the same strength and can be leak-proof, and can be printed with a company logo, together with a non-plastic lid and straw.

In the past this was seen as an added expense in an industry that already had tight profit margins, and early experiments with natural starch based products, such as plates and cutlery made from cassava, were seen as a novelty, even a little crackpot.

This attitude is changing, driven by an increased awareness of pollution levels in the earth and in the oceans, and the need to conserve the environment for future generations. In the search for a solution, a new material has been developed as liners for cups, and as lids.

The new Bio-plastics

This is a plastic-like material called polylactic acid (PLA). It is made from organic materials such as corn starch and sugar cane, and it can be used with both hot and cold drinks without affecting the taste. Unlike PE it can break down in six months or less, and has the added benefit of reducing carbon emissions. Switching production from petroleum based materials to corn based bioplastics can cause a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Another initiative which helps the cups to be recyclable is the change from solvent-based printing to water-based. For most coffee businesses the take-out cup is also a marketing tool – everyone can see the company logo. Solvents in printing ink use hydrocarbons such as paraffin, benzene and methanol, and these are damaging to the environment. Changing to a water based printing ink is not only a better solution, but is actually a cost-saving in the long term.

Single-use straws

There have been attempts by many eco-friendly cafes to eliminate plastic straws by using metal or glass substitutes. Apart from the issue of hygiene if these are not thoroughly sanitised between customers they do not solve the take-out problem.

It is estimated that currently in the US, around 500 million plastic straws are used – every day! In Europe the usage is around 25 billion every year. A single plastic straw will take up to 200 years to decompose – so at the rate we are using them, the whole planet could soon be covered in a layer of plastic straws. Something as insignificant as a small plastic straw could be one of today’s greatest environmental threats.

Biodegradable straws are now being made from PLA, made from plant –based materials. These do not become soggy or disintegrate with cold or hot drinks. Paper straws have been in use for a little while now, and are suitable for cold drinks. McDonalds restaurants for example now offer only paper straws.

Another major chain has taken it a step further and eliminated straws completely. Starbucks redesigned the lids for their cold cups to be “strawless lids”, and other major players may soon follow, not only to be seen as more eco-friendly but also for the cost-saving.

Conclusion

The world is changing; our attitudes and practices are being transformed. It has taken us on a long journey from complacency about the environment, through cynicism to genuinely caring for the planet’s future.

All the players in the coffee industry now recognise that they need to play their part, and from a hesitant start are firmly behind the required improvements in their business practices. Maybe in the near future the PE lined cup and the plastic straw will be seen as relics from a less-enlightened past; we can only hope.