The coffee cup scourge: How to ensure your compostable cups get composted

by Jesse Mulligan / 13 July, 2018

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You've bought a coffee that comes in a compostable cup but where do you then put it? An Auckland company is making sure they get processed properly by offering special collection bins.

Compostable packaging like the coffee cup has got a bad rap, and Steve Rickerby has set up We Compost to help get them composted in Auckland.

Many of these products are innovative and could help reduce the amount we send to landfill.

But say you've bought a coffee that comes in a compostable cup, the question then is where to put it.

"I think there's been a lot of confusion as well in the public about what to do," Rickerby says. 

"We see so much on social media with people saying 'oh, compostable packaging is no good, it just has to go to landfill, and that's really not the case.

"People are realising they actually can't be recycled. A compostable cup is designed to be composted."

Steve has partnered with Tony Small of Innocent Packaging to get the compostable packaging from cafes to commercial composting plants.

"We're just trying to make it a bit more obvious, rather than our compost bins being out the back we've now got something sitting out the front of cafes to make it a little bit more obvious and to encourage people to bring those things back and get them composted properly.

The composting plant makes their money at the front end in disposal fees, and then the finished compost is actually relatively low value to the industrial growers.

"We're basically saying 'there's capacity in our bins, more often than not these bins aren't full to the brim when we pick them up'.

"If anything it's costing us a little bit more in disposal fees, but it's not a heck of a lot."

He says Innocent Packaging is helping cover those costs of the bins.

"So it's not going to cost the public, it's not going to cost the cafes, and the cost to ourselves is marginal.

The service is being rolled out to several cafes in Auckland, with 50 businesses signed up so far, all offering to take compostable packaging regardless of where it comes from.

"That's what's quite sort of unique about what we're doing here, we want to build the infrastructure, we want these bins to be on every street corner and these bins to be accessible for people because if they're not, the alternative is just a rubbish bin.

"We're saying that anyone in our collection network will accept [any compostable packaging]."

He also addresses some of the concerns around compostable packaging.

"I think people need to remember that compostable packaging companies exist because the previous alternative was non-recyclable, there was no alternative other than landfill.

"They don't need to be sorted, they don't need to be exported, you're not relying on international commodity markets to be able to deal with them, so as an alternative to recycling I think it's really really important.

"We're not saying 'oh, hey, it's great, use as many compostable cups as you can', because we know that they still take energy, we know that they still produce emissions when they break down, we're just trying to do things in a little bit of a slightly better way."

"It's part of this other 'reducing' side of the argument."

He says compostable cups really do break down in compost.

"What they are is a paper outer and there's a thin PLA lining," he says.

"The PLA will break down quite easily because it's quite think, the challenge though is the lids, which generally have a thicker PLA.

"So the cup itself will break down just like an orange peel or a piece of banana peel or an apple core, but the lid won't and you'll have to cycle it through a few times.

He says commercial composting plants take care of that.

"The main differences with commercial composting is that you're achieving higher temperatures - so that means things break down faster - and the other big thing is that everything gets shredded first, so you're increasing the surface area of the product.

For those more interested in a DIY approach to composting though, that approach should work too, even on lids.

"Chop it up with some scissors."

This article was first published on Radio NZ.

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