This isn’t a war on waste. It’s a war on convenience. And just like a real war, this one doesn’t have a silver bullet that’s going to fix everything.
This special report looks at takeaway coffee cups from all angles.
We spoke to Biopak who produce our takeaway cups, as well as We Compost who return them back to the earth. Then we spoke to some of our customers, like Cardrona Alpine Resort who have banned takeaway coffee cups in all eight of their sites. On the other extreme, there’s Jones & Co who, by law, can only use takeaway coffee cups.
The statistics around takeaway coffee cups are staggering. It’s estimated 500 billion takeaway coffee cups are produced globally every year and the majority end up in landfill.
They’re a small portion of the bigger issue that is our throwaway society, but if we don’t start somewhere we are going to get nowhere.
As a society, we are at a tipping point. Everywhere you look, change is happening. The supermarket trolley bay screams at you to remember your reusable bag, the restaurant with the golden arches is holding back the straw, and you can’t buy bottled water at a festival anymore – no matter how thirsty you are.
And right behind single-use plastic bags, takeaway coffee cups have become the poster child for the war on waste. The issue is so much bigger than takeaway coffee cups though; it’s years of naivety, no infrastructure to support our inefficiencies, and misinformation that spreads like wildfire. But without strict regulations, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
As a business, we are taking responsibility to minimise our waste and bring conscious intent to how we design our packaging. Since 2011, our takeaway coffee cups have been certified commercially compostable – supporting a completely circular economy. We recently launched recyclable coffee bags when you purchase fresh from our roasteries and are in the midst of innovating packaging for our wholesale bags. It’s been a challenging project with factory trials, blind tasting and pushing the limits of what our suppliers even think is possible. It’s been a huge journey and, although the goalposts keep shifting, we are making progress. What’s kept us going through all the speed bumps and dead-ends is knowing the substantial effect that we can have as a business.
"They’re a small portion of the bigger issue that is our throwaway society, but if we don’t start somewhere we are going to get nowhere."
The other project we have been working tirelessly on is bringing a reusable cup to market. We didn’t want to add to a noisy and crowded market so we’ve pushed the boundaries to create an exciting product with our long-time supplier Biopak. We’ve had at least fifty different prototypes through our Design Studio over the past year and even did a small trial within New Zealand. All of these learnings have been applied to the final product, which we are beyond proud to put our name against. With our Allpress Reusable Cup, the change should feel minimal but the collective impact will be monumental.
We’re not so naive to think that our Allpress Reusable Cup will save the world. It’s a step forward – most definitely – but for us to really turn this ship around we need to be sailing in the right direction, together. Governments need to step up and change laws, corporations need to design for the future, businesses need to make everyday changes and you need to realise that convenience isn’t a given anymore.
Maybe there’s a simpler solution to this all though; leaving home five minutes earlier to get to your local independent café and enjoying your coffee in a ceramic. There’s the benefit of a conversation with your barista, taking a moment to get your head out of the digital clouds and mentally prepare for your day ahead.
Every day we make around 35,000 decisions. Today, you have one extra decision to make. Do you choose convenience, or do you choose the future?
Richard Fine, Founder of Biopak
There’s a lot of misinformation out there. What are your thoughts on the coffee cup’s role in this issue?
The media frenzy around coffee cups has resulted in increased awareness regarding the environmental impact of single-use packaging and that the use of plastic for food service disposables is neither practical nor sustainable.
Not only is there misinformation but there is also an attempt by some to mislead by advertising and promoting proprietary technologies exclusive to specific cup manufacturers and suppliers. However, in order for a solution to be effective, it must be available and accessible to all. Compostable and composting infrastructure is this solution.
Have you felt threatened by coffee cups becoming the poster child for the war on waste?
As much as it has been demonised recently in the media, the paper cup has been instrumental in developing and growing the coffee industry.
We encourage consumers to choose reusables whenever possible, but there will always be a need for single-use food service packaging providing the consumer with the option for an impulse food and beverage purchase when away from home. And it is possible to provide a sustainable solution to the problem.
"We have welcomed the media and consumer focus regarding the non- recyclability of paper cups..."
We have welcomed the media and consumer focus regarding the non-recyclability of paper cups as it has led to an increase in awareness of the problem and in turn stimulated debate in various industry bodies and government departments and motivated brand owners, cafés, raw material suppliers, cup manufacturers and distributors to find solutions to the problem.
What do you think the future of single-use products will be?
We believe the future of single-use disposable food service packaging is compostable. Using compostable materials simplifies the waste collection and diversion of food scraps and packaging material from landfill.
A combination of redesign and investment in compost infrastructure is required to make progress in reducing the number of cups going to landfill.
Several elements need to be in place to make wider use of compostable plastics beneficial. These include the development of adequate infrastructure to handle such materials (e.g. separate collection of organics, composting or anaerobic digestion facilities) – infrastructure which is emerging rapidly in Australia and New Zealand.
Steve Rickerby, Founder of We Compost
What was the catalyst for you starting We Compost?
I was working in an insurance company in the city, where we had really flash waste sorting bins for compost, recycling and rubbish. Then I found out that the compost was just going straight to landfill. I decided to fix the problem and started collections with one bin of coffee grounds on the back of my ute.
How has the public perception shifted since you founded We Compost?
There has been a phenomenal shift in the general public awareness of environmental issues. When I first started We Compost it seemed like no one really cared about those sorts of things. Now it feels like a switch has been flicked and the public is demanding these things. In the coffee industry, the shift to compostable cups and getting rid of single-use plastics is a great example and keeping organic waste out of landfill is the next wave.
"Yes, I know it seems like a strange thing to be building a waste company with that in mind..."
The future of waste?
Waste in any system is a sign of inefficiency. I think in the immediate future we are going to see a global shift towards a circular economy of recovery and closed-loop reuse, but longer term we will need to simply design waste out of the system. Yes, I know it seems like a strange thing to be building a waste company with that in mind but I like to think that our business will develop and help drive those changes over time.
Nina Rongokea, Barista Coordinator at Cardrona Alpine Resort
What was the problem you solved?
When I started at Cardrona three years ago, I started mid-season. I had one hour of training and was thrown completely in the deep end. The problem with some of our sites is they were built for capacity. Huge floor and a tiny kitchen. I noticed straight away that all they were doing was serving in single-use takeaway cups. About 50,000 of them a year.
How did you get the change across the line?
The second year I came back I pushed for change but there was no budget. So the third year I put together a pitch, crunched some numbers and found out that if they gave us X amount of money to upgrade the dish pit and purchase new crockery, it would take Y weeks to cover the costs. I estimated it would take five weeks. It ended up only taking three.
I’m sure you hear the ‘it keeps my coffee hot’, ‘it tastes better in a takeaway’ etc all the time. How do you convince people that this is the way to go?
If anything, we’re always going to try and change people’s minds to think twice about whether they need a takeaway cup or not. We have the luxury of being in a beautiful environment so we can say to them ‘where are you going, why are you leaving us so soon?’ Another reason we’ve felt really comfortable with the change is because of the business relationship we have with you guys, and you pushing us. We all know it will benefit in the long run.
Any tips for going single-use free?
Arm your staff with knowledge. Teach them how to have positive conversations with customers about why you’re doing it.
Change to ACME tasting cups, with no handle if you are high-volume. You will be able to fit double the amount of crockery on top of the machine to keep hot.
Look at your systems and resource. You will have to hire more resources and update your systems to cope with increased crockery.
Role-play out a customer ordering, waiting, and drinking the coffee to find any gaps in the system early on.
Sarah & Lyndsay, owners of Jones & Co
Jones & Co only offer takeaway options. Is that by law?
It’s common within the Byron Bay Shire that cafés only offer single-use due to licensing. It’s more difficult to obtain a sit-in café license – we’d have to get a dishwasher, grease trap, all those extra things. If we were to have sit down, we’d have to employ more staff too. Currently, it’s just the two of us and because we only do coffee and pastry we can handle it.
Do they incentivise reusable cups?
We don’t offer a discount or anything. We believe people need to take responsibility for this decision themselves and live the lifestyle. I feel like if you’re going somewhere to get a takeaway coffee, you should take your cup. It’s everyone’s responsibility to make the right decision. It’s up to the person.
How much of their revenue relies on takeaway cup coffee sales?
Probably about half of our revenue is from takeaway cup coffee sales. The other half are our regular clientele that bring in their reusable cup, day in day out. Encouragingly, our need to order disposables has steadily decreased over the last 12 months. We also have beautiful ceramic reusable cups available to purchase in the store that make up some of our sales.
What would happen to their business if single-use cups were banned in Australia?
We would love this and we would adapt. Our regulars would still come in, and we would find a solution to this no doubt. It’s changing habits, right?
Richard, Steve, Nina, Sarah and Lyndsay are all individuals who are collectively working towards the greater good. They are all, in their own ways, providing solutions to the problem while others scramble to find the elusive silver bullet.
Sometime in the future, we might have a perfect world. We might have commercial compost collection bins on every corner, but it’s still up to you to make sure the commercially compostable coffee cup goes in there. Tomorrow, it’s up to you to make sure you grab your keys, phone and reusable coffee cup as you rush out the door so you can get a discount or stamp on your card. And today, it’s up to you to get up five minutes earlier to enjoy a coffee in a ceramic in your local café.
In this war on convenience, you are always the common denominator. It’s time to wake up and be the change we need in the world because the truth is there is no silver bullet to fix it all.