Paper Disposable Coffee Cups not as Recyclable as They Seem
In the UK alone there are 7 million disposable coffee cups consumed every single day, that is around 2.5 billion cups per year. Many people are under the illusion that those coffee cups are recycled but this is not true. Loopholes in the guidelines regulators use, mean that these coffee cups can make the claim because technically, they can be recycled in a fashion. The reality is less than 1% of those 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups in the UK are recycled.
Paper disposable coffee cups are lined with a plastic polyethylene so that they do not leak, even when containing hot liquid. This makes a great container for liquid, however, this means that disposable coffee cups are a nightmare to recycle. The paper also tends to be made from virgin paper pulp, which means that is paper made from felled trees and not from a recycled source. Trees are cut down so someone can enjoy a coffee for up to 30 minutes. This of course comes with a huge carbon footprint.
Coffee companies are guilty of misleading their customers, with claims on packaging that their disposable coffee cups are recyclable, giving the impression that they are recycled at a much better rate than they are currently. It's true that the disposable coffee cups are technically recyclable and plastic polyethylene can be recycled, however, the process which the materials are put together, make it complicated, time consuming and expensive to do so. This means that when a disposable coffee cup makes it to a recycling plant in the UK it is
sent to landfill because it is too expensive to recycle the cup.
You of course could argue that there is a problem with recycling infrastructure, but realistically there is not enough money available for the government to do this. The companies are aware of the issues, and let their customers continue to be under the impression that their cups are recycled, this is unethical and blatant green washing. Of course things are improving, with a little bit of pressure from various forms of media, many coffee companies in the UK now offer discount schemes to customers who bring their own reusable cups. But they have
not removed the recyclable symbol from their coffee cups and there are still many people placing their disposable coffee cups in recycle bins, without knowing that it is heading straight for landfill.
What is Being Done About "Recyclable" Coffee Cups?
A strategy has been set out by the Environmental Audit Committee for the UK to deal with waste specifically from disposable coffee cups. This is a result of the public's growth in awareness of the issues surrounding plastic pollution. The Committee have suggested the introduction of a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles to encourage recycling, so that less plastic bottles end up in our oceans or landfill.
The Environmental Audit Committee suggested a "Latte Levy" which is a 25p charge for using disposable coffee cups. The UK Chancellor Philip Hammond has publicly expressed his support for charges on single-use plastics in his 2018 November budget. It was also recommended that 100% of disposable coffee cups should be recycled by 2023, if this target is not met then disposable coffee cups should be made illegal.
Are Degradable Plastic Coffee Cups Better?
Sounds like a no brainer right? Just use a degradable cup, then it will just safely break down into nutrients and go back to the earth. Well there's a bit of a green washing scandal at the moment when it comes to the terms degradable and biodegradable.
There are two types of degradable plastic:
Degradable plastic which is normal oil-based plastic, but when it is manufactured a chemical is added that breaks the plastic down into smaller pieces over time, normally when exposed to sunlight and oxygen. This degradable plastic just turns into microplastic and never actually goes away.
Biodegradable plastic is bio-plastic and is made from plant based materials, like corn or potato starch, these plastics can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms into nutrients. However, conditions have to be perfect and normally these biodegradable plastics take allot longer to break down in the real world than in perfect laboratory conditions.
There is no widespread infrastructure for recycling biodegradable plastics, and they will contaminate regular plastic recycling if placed in recycle bins. There have been many cases also where bio-plastics are being miss sold and mixed with regular plastic by unethical manufacturers.
What About Compostable Coffee Cups?
If you are going to need the convenience of disposable coffee cups, then compostable cups are absolutely the best option. The same goes for any other disposable items you may need, such as plates or cutlery for example. For something to be compostable it needs to be naturally biodegradable, so these products tend to be made out of vegetables, sugars, hemp, wood, bamboo ect... these products can safely be turned into compost.
However, some of these materials, though they compost they can take hundreds of years to fully rot down into compost and will require industrial composting which speeds up the process by enabling perfect heat conditions and perfect balance of cultures of micro-organisms to compost materials as efficiently as possible. So do not go adding these products to your personal composter or your flower beds, check for a local community composting scheme if your council does not offer compostable collection. Even if that is not an option for you so your
compostable cup has to go to landfill at least you know it will completely degrade one day.
What About Edible Coffee Cups?
Yes you read that part correctly, edible coffee cups. You might be aware of some of the inventions and edible cups, bottles, plates and cutlery out there, but most of these are not suitable for hot drinks, as it will destroy them almost instantly. There are coffee cups available made of cereal and they will hold a hot drink for half an hour before it starts to leak, which is the perfect amount of time to wait for your drink to cool down and drink it, not so great if you forget about it though! You would not only have the heartbreaking moment of sipping cold tea or coffee, but also a clean-up operation on your hands! But it is defiantly a great addition to the arsenal for the fight against single use plastic, if cereal coffee cups were to become popular, they could give you apt time to pick up a coffee on the way to work and transfer it to a mug for example. Do not worry if you do not want to eat the cup either because the cup will obviously be compostable.
Reusable Coffee Cups and Flasks
The best solution of the all is to use your own travel mug, flask, reusable cup or any hot liquid container of your choice. Single use of anything, even if it is as ethical as possible will have a much larger carbon footprint than just finding yourself a really good sturdy reusable cup. Even better if you can avoid plastic here too and get yourself a mainly metal flask or reinforced glass, there are even ceramic cups with silicone lids which avoid plastic completely. Me personally I have a metal flask with a plastic screw cap, (do not hate me!), the point being that I have had this flask for a number or years, not only do I take it to work if I need a pick me up on my commute, but I have dropped it countless times, taken it out on multiple hikes and trips and it works perfectly with no leaks what so ever. At the time of writing this article we do not currently have any metal flasks in stock on the store, but we do have a cool bamboo lid and reinforced glass flask, I'll try to source a good metal flask and edit this article, though I probably will forget to edit this article straight away so check our store anyway... I am far from perfect I do apologise!
I am going to keep the conclusion brief, paper disposable coffee cups offered by coffee shops are bad for the environment, no matter what they tell you, it is best to bring your own reusable cup if that is not an option find compostable cups maybe if you're a regular at a coffee place ask them to order you some in or give them some to serve you your coffee in for the future. You would be surprised sometimes what can happen if you just ask!