So, compostable coffee cups or compostable packaging. As it’s single-use then it’s not the best solution, but it’s also not the worst. Right?
Well, it turns out those compostable cups and other compostable packaging items aren’t quite as compostable as you might think. These items cannot be put into your kerbside recycling or home compost bins, unless you have a specific Hotbin. Instead, they must be sent to industrial composting facilities.
Aren’t all local authority compost facilities industrial? Sadly not – industrial composting facilities are not widely available. There are only 50 in the UK, and not all of these currently accept and deal with compostable packaging products. Therefore, many local authorities don’t have access to this type of facility, making it almost impossible to correctly recycle compostable packaging.
You might be wondering why industrial composting facilities are not more widely available, given the benefits of using compostable materials in favour of plastics. The reason is that the UK’s food waste sector has been led by government subsidies and guidance that favours anaerobic digestion (without oxygen) as the preferred method of food waste treatment. Therefore, the majority of the UK food waste collection and treatment infrastructure is orientated accordingly, and not set up to deal with compostable packaging products that require oxygen to break down.
What’s the problem with compostable cups?
Compostable cups and other types of packaging, such as those made by Vegware, may be made from natural materials. However, compostable coffee cups take years to breakdown at the average local authority composting facility. Meanwhile, food and garden waste takes around six weeks. Hence the problems that these materials cause.
This means that any compostable cups found in food waste bins are being fished out and sent to landfill. Compostable cups are therefore well-meaning, but in these circumstances can be worse for the environment than recyclable plastic cups.
What Should Go Into Your Kerbside Bin / Home Composter?
The only compostable non food/garden waste items that should go in your food waste bin are the compostable kitchen caddy liners that have the EN13432 seedling logo on them, like these ones. Bags with this logo on them are made from potato starch so break down at the same rate as food and garden waste. This means they don’t cause the problems that compostable cups or lids do.
Compostable cups, lids and other packaging also won’t compost in a standard home composter as temperatures are unlikely to get high enough to compost these items.
What’s The Answer To the Compostable Cup Problem?
The simplest answer is to only sit in at a cafe. Before ordering, do check that the cafe offers standard reusable cups/mugs. I have been caught out before by cafes using disposable cups even for sitting in customers.
The other answer is to try to remember your reusable coffee cup when you go out. My favourite reusable coffee cup on the go is the Stojo cup. This is a collapsible silicone cup that when flattened down takes us very little room in your bag. When you are ready for a hot beverage it simply pops up in seconds.
If your local coffee shop uses compostable cups, let them know that these can’t be composted unless they have a special paid-for collection arrangement with Vegware (only currently available in parts of Scotland, Bristol and Gloucestershire), or a paid for postal return service.
If you are a coffee shop owner, why not offer your customers a discount for using their own cup. Worried about accepting reusables at the moment? Check out this video on making contactless coffee. Alternatively, take inspiration from the Boston Tea Party coffee shop chain, who do not use any form of single use takeaway cups.