Saving the world, one coffee cup at a time

29 August 2016

At the University of Canterbury, sustainability advocate Dr Matt Morris is helping to lead the charge, taking on the use of takeaway coffee cups.

Saving the world, one coffee cup at a time

The UC Sustainability Office has introduced a two-year pilot to test a separate collection system for takeaway coffee cups and to test them in a mechanical composting system owned by an external provider.

At the University of Canterbury, sustainability advocate Dr Matt Morris is helping to lead the charge, taking on the use of takeaway coffee cups. Here he discusses the problem and possible solutions to the addictive throwaway habit.

As takeaway culture becomes more entrenched in our culture, single-use throwaway coffee cups are on the rise. Until 2013 the University of Canterbury (UC) was able to recycle these cups and their plastic lids. However, from 2013 a number of items that were previously taken for recycling were no longer accepted, including these coffee cups and lids. We were asked to dispose of these items direct to landfill.  And coffee cups are just the tip of the rubbish iceberg. All forms of single-use food packaging are now being rejected for recycling. So we need to develop an alternative system to deal with the problem.

There are three options:
1) Send these items to landfill. This simple option is not desirable, as a linear resource use process that makes no effort to close the resource loop that is creating huge problems in Canterbury, New Zealand and worldwide. We also need to recognise that landfilling is the most expensive waste disposal option available to us.
2) Compost them. This option has great sustainability outcomes, ensuring that the resources used in the manufacture of the product are returned safely to the earth. There are two difficulties to contend with, though. The first is that most waste services providers will not accept coffee cups for composting, regardless of whether they are certified ‘compostable’ or not. This is because their mechanical systems are not actually geared to compost these materials. The second difficulty is that there are many kinds of takeaway coffee cups. Most have a plastic or wax lining that is not desirable in compost.
3) Ban them. Many municipalities and private businesses have started banning single use coffee cups. Instead they encourage people to either drink their coffees in the café, or else bring their own cup. This option requires both policy development and sometimes new equipment; many cafes nowadays don’t even have space for a dishwasher, so they can’t offer crockery.

What are we doing about it?
The UC Sustainability Office has introduced a two-year pilot to test a separate collection system for takeaway coffee cups and to test them in a mechanical composting system owned by an external provider. Since there is no leadership from the waste companies in dealing with this growing problem, and since banning takeaway cups is not currently considered an option, we have put energy into creating a viable alternative system. Our first priority is to actually create the alternative collection system, and find out what the sorting requirements are and whether the system could be easily operationalised. So far, we have diverted over 30,000 cups from landfill with our ‘blue bin’ system. We are also testing the compostability of the cups, and using the current system we have not found any issues with this. Once we can confirm that the process works, we will try to influence cafes on campus to only sell certified compostable cups (where there’s stricter control about the materials used in their manufacture), and we could expand the service to include other forms of single-use food packaging (such as burger boxes, juice cups, sushi containers).

What can we all do?
We need to shift from single-use food packaging – when you throw something away, there is no actual ‘away’. Our planet is choking under this waste burden and we have to get real about this. For a start, single-use coffee cups should be banned. But if your organisation cannot ban them, then consider purchasing a certified compostable version and find a simple way to compost them on site. A worm farm would be ideal.

For further information please contact:
Dr Matt Morris, UC Sustainability Advocate
Ph: 364 3495 Email: matt.morris@canterbury.ac.nz

or

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168 | margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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