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The Truth About That 'Compostable' Coffee Cup

Posted by Shay Lawrence on

Compostable: the word on everyone’s lips and every coffee cup in town. It’s magic, it’s revolutionary, it’s the way of the future. Right?

With our waste crisis and plastic pollution reaching new levels of severity, we’ve turned to composting to solve a lot of our problems. Compostable bin liners, food packaging, toothbrushes, baking paper, dental floss, deodorant tubes, and even underwear are being advertised as the better alternatives to plastic. Compost bins of all shapes and sizes are the new best thing since sliced bread; everyone’s jumping on the composting bandwagon.

But there’s a problem with the word ‘compostable’. It means many different things, and has the potential to be a greenwashing tactic used to make you buy a product and feel good about it.

We’re clinging to compost like it’s the answer to all our prayers, but compostable may not be the solution.

Let’s bust out some facts about compost, define what it really means, and answer the big question:

Is composting and compostable packaging the solution?

Home Compost:

Composting is a way of recycling our waste through the breaking down of substances by soil micro-organisms. These micro-organisms turn our waste into a rich, fertile soil; ideal for growing healthy plants. When a compost bin is given the right levels of water, air, nitrogen (green matter) and carbon (brown matter), it will break our waste down quickly, easily, and require low maintenance.

A home compost can break down the following:

Brown matter:

  • Dry leaves
  • Saw dust
  • Shredded paper
  • Straw
  • Hay
  • Cardboard

Dried leaves

Green matter:

  • Fruit (only low levels of citrus if you have worms)
  • Vegetables
  • Coffee grounds
  • Seaweed
  • Animal manure
  • Tea leaves
  • Grass clippings

Vegetables

Home composting is amazing for all your organic waste, it diverts it from landfill and produces awesome nutrients for garden. 

Just be wary that a home compost does not break down everything that says ‘compostable’ or ‘biodegradable’.

What does?

Commercially Compostable and Biodegradable:

The term biodegradable is not interchangeable with compost-friendly. Biodegradable means the object has the ability to break down under certain conditions. It will break down eventually, but who knows when. A home compost involves a high turnover, offering crumbly, delicious soil for your garden every month. Meanwhile, biodegradable items may take years or even decades to break down.

Enter: Commercial Compost Plants.

To break down PLA (biodegradable plastic), the temperature must be right, this enables an easy breakdown. This is why it is so simple in a commercial plant rather than at home. 

Unless you have fancy technology set up in your home garden, that monitors compound levels and divides your waste into five stages, your home compost bin will never break down all ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ items, especially PLA: the most common compostable material today.

When we specifically look at coffee cups, whether lined with PLA or traditional plastic, it is still mostly paper. This paper, being organic, breaks down in the landfill and emits methane into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.  So....we can see that if a compostable coffee cup actually makes it to the correct bin and into a commercial composting facility then it's for sure better than the traditional plastic lined one. It's just that a lot of energy and resources, kind of why the reusable option comes in tops. 

 

Smoothie

So...What is this magical bio-plastic?

PLA stands for polylactic acid. It’s a plant based product, usually corn starch or sugar cane. PLA is made from the waste of agricultural produce, like the crop residue after corn fields are harvested, e.g. stems, husks, and leaves. PLA is what your common compostable coffee cups, bin liners, takeaway trays, and cutlery are made from. 

Although it’s created with renewable resources, and reduces the demand for oil fossil fuels and oil based plastic, PLA has its problems.

When Tank juice shared about their new PLA corn starch straws, the captions read: “Yay the turtles!” Unfortunately, a turtle will not look at a straw and think ‘oh hey, that’s biodegradable, I won’t try to eat it, and it surely won’t get stuck in my nostrils.’

Turtle

The turtles are still unhappy. Here's why:

The draw card of PLA plastic, is that it acts, looks, and feels just like oil based plastic. This means the consumer does not compromise on their straw drinking or coffee sipping experience. But, this also means that a PLA item acts the same as a plastic item in the ocean: it still won’t break down. PLA can only break down in a commercial compost environment, and is not recyclable. The coffee cups you've bought, labelled 'compostable', and thrown into landfill, still exist today.

In essence, degradable plastic is still just plastic but with an additive that makes it break down in the right conditions. 

 

SO...IS COMPOSTING THE SOLUTION?

Yes, and no! Composting your vegetable scraps and brown matter is awesome. Your garden will love it, and landfills will be emptier because of it. But, at the end of the day, a compostable packaging item still encourages a single use, disposable way of living. Just because your takeaway cup or bag says it is made from plants and says compostable, it is still a resource. It still needs to be made, transported, disposed of (correctly!) 

Composting is confusing, but with a few basic tools and knowledge, we're confident you'll crack it!

REMEMBER:

  • Compostable packaging justifies single use! Stick to less compost, and more reusables. Check out our CaliWoods Easy Swap Guide for more ideas.
  • If you don’t know where it should go, and can’t find the answer after research, put it in landfill. If you put PLA into the recycling it contaminates recycling streams, meaning the other stuff you have so carefully sorted becomes un-usable!
  • Home compostable is drastically different to commercially compostable. Home compost lets you process your own waste at home which is pretty cool. Businesses using home compostable materials are providing responsible pathways to close the waste loop on their product.
  • Multilayered packaging (i.e. a coffee cup) is a lot harder to recycle. It cannot be sorted or recycled efficiently. At least with a compostable cup it can be composted (in the right conditions). So in comparison, it definitely is a better option! 

WHAT TO DO:

REFUSE IT - Try not to end up with it in the first place. Make personal rules and stick to them. Examples: If you don’t have your CaliWoods Tumbler, you don’t get a coffee. If you don't have a CaliWoods Reusable Straw, no smoothie for you.

DISPOSE OF PROPERLY - If you do use compostables, make sure you are putting them in the correct bin! If there's no commercial compost bin available, compostables must go to landfill!

DINE IN - Avoid needing a disposable vessel altogether, and use this opportunity to chill and contemplate your awesome eco-ness.

GIVE - If you can’t compost where you live, find someone local who can take your scraps: The Compost Collective and We Compost are Auckland based examples. 

ASK - Encourage local cafes to switch to compostable coffee cups, and give customers a discount when they bring their own reusable cups. If they already have compostable cups, enquire about their commercial composting processes. If they don’t separate their commercial compost waste, why not? Have they got a bin where you can bring the cup back to?

 

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1 comment

  • Callum Armstrong on

    Hey Shay, been reading over some of your blogs here – really insightful and pragmatic. Love how you take a practical (rather than perfectionist) approach to being eco-conscious! Nice one :)

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