Take Away Coffee

“When did the words plastic and disposable become nearly synonyms?”

Plastic Ocean
Charles Moore

It’s is cheaper to bring your own cup.

There are not many instances in this world where you are rewarded monetarily for doing the right thing. For example, here in New Zealand, we have to pay to have our curbside-recycling picked up. Similarly, all around the the world, ships and boats have to pay at port to dump their rubbish. Instead of making the “right thing”, like recycling free, we often are incentivised to do the wrong thing, like dumb our rubbish into the ocean. It is frequently a privilege to recycle or buy organic, rather than making the “right thing” accessible to all. However, bringing your own coffee cup seems to be the exception to the rule. It is actually cheaper to bring your own cup to the coffee house, than to buy a single-use plastic cup that they provide. As it should be, you get rewarded for reducing yours and the cafe’s waste.

When consumers bring their own cups, it can save cafe’s money in two ways. Firstly, cafes no longer need to buy single-use cups, or at least not nearly as many. Secondly, because customers are using less of the cafe’s single-use cups, it leaves the cafe with less rubbish. In New Zealand, it can cost up to $25/ per rubbish bag to have rubbish collected. This is money back into the pocket of the cafe.

With these savings, cafe’s are able to cut the cost of their coffee for the consumer’s who bring their own cups. Many places will offer 50 cents or more off coffee. This can seem like a small amount, but over time it will add up. Plus, you get the satisfying feeling that you are helping to save the planet, yay!


What about those compostable cups at cafes?

Almost always, that cup will still end up in landfill.

Most compostable coffee cups need to be “commercially composted.” If you throw it in your ‘at home’ compost, you will find that it takes an excessively long time to break down. This makes it impractical, since it would create a large pile of compostable cups in your backyard. Under specific conditions, like extreme heat attained at commercial compost facilities, compostable cups can break down rapidly.

Most cafe’s seem to not mention the fact that their cups must be disposed of via a commercial compost system, when they advertise that they have compostable cups. They offer the cup, but then offer no means of proper disposal. Throwing a compostable cup into a rubbish bin, is the same as throwing a plastic cup in the rubbish bin. When food and other compostable items are placed in a plastic rubbish bag, they are suffocated and struggle to break down properly. So, when a cafe offers a compostable cup, but only offers a rubbish bin for disposal, know that they are simply performing and green washing to get your business.

If you live somewhere like New York City, you may have access to curbside compost collection. However, as is common with recycling, just because you put it in the bin, does not mean your cup is actually being composted. It is often referred to as “wish-cycling” or “wishful-composting” when we are unsure if an item can be recycled or composted, but throw it in the recycle or compost bin anyways, in order to feel better about our actions. This often does more harm than good. Wish-cycling is not entirely the consumers fault, our recycle and compost systems are so complex, variable, and confusing that it is extremely difficult to do the right thing. Like recycle centres, compost centres are different in every location. Some can process more ‘stuff’ than others. Not all compost facilities have the ability to compost bio-plastic (compostable) coffee cups. In fact, it is highly likely the cup will end up in landfill, where its life could be extended more than necessary. Frustrating, right?


PLA … the bioplastic, its what’s in your cup.

PLA is not the only type of bio-plastic that is used for take-away coffee cups, but it is the most common. I will walk through what PLA is and mention the pro’s and con’s. Spoiler Alert: the result is that we should all use reusable cups instead of using compostable cups.

PLA vs Plastic

PLA, or Polylactic Acid, is referred to as a “bio-plastic” for its ability to mimic plastic, but unlike plastic, PLA is made up of renewable resources. It is made of lactic acid, which is extracted from renewable products such as corn or sugar cane, via the fermentation process. This fermentation process creates small PLA pellets, or “nurdles”. Nurdles can be poured into a mould, like the shape of a bottle or coffee cup, and put through a heating process to solidify the nurdles into that mould shape. The result of this heating and moulding process is a product that looks and acts just like a plastic bottle or plastic coffee cup. However, PLA can only be heated and moulded once, unlike plastic which can be “recycled” and re-moulded into new products. Heating PLA a second time simply burns it. This means, PLA is not able to be recycled, it MUST be composted after its single use.

PLA is made up of renewable resources (corn and sugar) that can be planted over and over again, unlike its counterpart, plastic, which is made up of the non-renewable resource, petroleum (oil). Depending on the conditions, PLA will break down in the environment naturally, taking anywhere from 6 months to 24 months. Plastic on the other hand, can take up to 1000 years to fully break down. “All plastic ever created, still exists today” (Moore, Plastic Ocean). To emphasise PLA’s ability to break down, it is worth pointing out that PLA has been used by surgeons inside the human body, in the forms of netting, supports, or pins. These devices are able to break down naturally in the body over time. It allows the body time to slowly strengthen itself as the PLA degrades.

Composting and Recycle Centres: PLA flaws


Despite being capable of breaking down within the body, PLA needs to be commercially composted in all other instances. While it can break down in ‘at hom'” composts, most people cannot afford to wait the two years it would take. This means consumers not only need access to a compost facility, which is hard enough, but they also need access to a compost facility that can process PLA. As mentioned, not all compost centres are the same, some are limited in what they are capable of composting. Some compost centres may accept food scraps only, or green waste (from a garden) only, or PLA only. It is hard to know unless you call around, and not everyone has time for that. This is when people start to wish-cycle.

Wish-cycling is an expensive flaw. Since PLA products look very similar to plastic products, recycle centres often end up with PLA bottles, containers, and coffee cups. If a PLA product does not get sorted out from the plastic recycling before the re-heating and re-moulding process, then the PLA can contaminate the whole batch of plastic recycling. Even if the recycle centre’s do sort the PLA products from the plastic products, they are stuck with having to dispose of the PLA products. This leaves recycle centres stuck between a rock and hard place. They either spend time and money trying to send PLA to a proper composting facility, or they dump it in the landfill, which will likely be free or cheaper. Again, there is no incentive to “do the right thing”, instead it costs them money. So, when I say, “Just because you put it in the bin, does not mean it gets recycled or composted”, this is the problem I am referring to.

“[Trash] becomes litter only after people thoughtlessly discard it.” In reality, all trash is litter. All plastic is litter when it can no longer be recycled.

Plastic Ocean
Charles Moore

PLA and Monocropping

While it can seem exciting that PLA comes from renewable resources, one must think about the affects of using those same resources over and over again. The demand for corn and sugarcane are already high since Big Agriculture uses them to feed animals like cows, pigs, and chickens. This high demand results in issues like mono-cropping and soil degradation. Mono-cropping occurs when there is a large demand for one product, which results in the planting of a single type of crop over and over again, on the same land.

Mono-cropping leads to soil degradation. The lack of diversity being planted on a single plot of land, can result in nutrient-poor soil. Plants need nutrients to survive; they give and take with the soil. If the same plant always gives and takes the same nutrients, the soil will not be very healthy. This would be like a human only eating apples. We need a variety of foods to fulfil out nutrient needs. As the soil gets worse and worse, more and more fertilisers and pesticides are needed to intervene. This results in poor worker health and more chemicals in water run-off, harming water supplies. Mono-cropping effectively creates a desert, where the soil is so nutrient poor, it can eventually no longer be used. It then becomes a waste of land.

We should also consider if it is worth planting fields and fields of corn and sugarcane, just to create a single-use product. In a world where hunger plagues many, it seems unfair to grown food that will simply be turned into a product whose life may only be as long as 12 minutes ( the average time a plastic bag gets used for). Meanwhile, that same land could have been used to grow food for the world.

Companies, Not Consumers, Should Be Responsible for PLA Disposal

The creation of this “amazing” plastic alternative comes before the invention of easy disposal. This is the same problem we saw with plastic. We created plastic before we could dispose of it in a non-harmful way. In fact, we still have no good method for dealing with our plastic waste. If we are going to use PLA as a solution to our plastic problem, it should be required that every place it is sold in, to have composting easily available. Our current system, puts the responsibility of disposal on the consumer. In some cases the closest compost facility could be a five hour drive away. To expect consumers to jump through hoops, like driving five hours away, is absurd. If producers and sellers want to use PLA, they should have to provide a means for disposal too. Producers and sellers should do better and we should demand more of them. 

As spoiled at the beginning, choosing a reusable cup is the best option. Having a cup that you can use over and over again, avoids all of these negatives that comes with using PLA. Of course, if I was faced with choosing between plastic or PLA, I would chose PLA, but I am aware that it is not a good alternative, yet.

Resources:
NZ Herald EcoProducts CreativeMechanisms SmithsonianMagazine
Plastic Ocean: by Charles Moore

Which reusable cup is the best cup?

I have chosen brands that produce plastic-free cups. This is for two reasons. Firstly, some plastics are known to release toxins, odours, or micro plastics into food and drinks when heated. From personal experience, I can say there is a plasticky-taste in my coffee when I drink from a plastic cup or lid, even if it is the well-regarded #5 plastic. Secondly, I have chosen non-plastic cups because I know that they can be recycled over and over at the end of their life.

Cost and Privilege

It is important to acknowledge that the cost of these cups is high, meaning not everyone has access to buying them. Although I believe that the cup does eventually pay for itself through the discount you get on your coffee, it does not mean everyone can afford to shell-out the up-front cost. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it is a privilege to do the right thing, like buy a reusable cup. No one should be shamed for not being able to afford the environmentally friendly option. It should not be left up to the consumers in the first place to manage their waste, when company’s could be doing so much more. It is important to approach this topic with kindness and empathy. If you have the privilege to buy a cup then you should, because it is the right thing for the Earth, but just be careful how you flaunt it.

If anyone wants to see what I use for a low-cost coffee cup, scroll down!


Re-usable Coffee Cups to Buy


WanaKup

WanaKup is a young, new company based in Wanaka, New Zealand. They offer a double-walled stainless steel cup. The double-walled vacuum seal means you won’t burn your hands while holding your hot drink. It also means you can keep cold drinks, cold.

Brand Origin: New Zealand
Produced in: Unknown.
Personally Used? Yes.

Pottery For The Planet

This Australian-based company produces hand-crafted coffee cups. No two cups are the same for this reason. They offer a silicone lid, for coffee on the go. Have a look at their plates and bowls too.

This company is family owned and they are long-time connected to the Vietnamese families that they source from. Read Here about their supply chain.

Brand and Design Origin: Australia
Produced in: Vietnam (responsibly sourced, in fact a close relationship between families)
Personally Used? No.

Joco

Joco is an Australian-based company that offers a glass coffee cup with a silicone lid and sleeve. Glass is my favourite medium to drink coffee from, since I think it impacts the taste the least. Joco uses Borosilicate glass, which is what Pyrex uses. It is good because it is very durable and less likely to break like regular glass in the event of an accident. However, it cannot be recycled at its end of life. In fact, putting it in the recycling with other glass will contaminate the whole batch.

Brand Origin: Australia
Produced in: Hand-blown glass in China (“responsibly sourced” according to the Q&A section)
Personally Used? No.

Sol

Sol is an Australian-based company that also offers a glass and silicone combo. It is unclear what type of glass it is, but the Q & A section indicates it is recyclable. Silicone is a difficult product to recycle, but this company will actually take your silicone parts back and do it for you. Talk about circular economy!

Brand Origin: Australia
Produced in: Unknown
Personally Used? No.

Life Without Plastic

People in the U.S. drink coffee differently than most of the world, which is why this U.S.-based company is a good option for North Americans. LWP has designed a tall, glass cup to suit your tall coffee needs. This company has been around for a while now, so they offer more than just coffee cups. They also offer products like glass baby bottles or stainless steel lunch boxes.

Brand Origin: United States
Produced in: China (“responsibly sourced” according to their Q & A section)
Personally Used? No.

Turtle Cup

This adorable logo belongs to a U.K.-based company that offers a glass and silicone coffee cup. Turtle Cup uses Borosilicate glass, which is what Pyrex uses. It is good because it is very durable and less likely to break like regular glass in the event of an accident. However, it cannot be recycled at its end of life. In fact, putting it in the recycling with other glass will contaminate the whole batch. This company claims that it is carbon neutral, but does not provide the details of how that is obtained. But, if you’re in the U.K., this could be a good company to support or get in touch with.

Brand Origin: U.K.
Produced in: Unknown (Not much info on this in fact)
Personally Used? No.

Frank Green

This Australian-based company has been wildly successful with their triple-walled cup design. The cup can be used for loose-leaf tea, since there is a strainer built into the cap. It is a BPA-free cap and the cup is built with stainless steel and ceramic layers for the perfect coffee taste. The compactness of the cup and its ability to keep liquid either hot or cold makes it very attractive. They offer customisable covers too!

*My only qualm is that they have a plastic lid. It is made with plastic #5, polypropylene, which is regarded as a ‘safe’ plastic. But I do feel like it makes my coffee taste plasticky, so I often drink it without the lid on. The cup is great for preserving heat though!

Brand Origin: Australian
Produced in: Australia and China
Personally Used? Yes.

Low-Cost Coffee Cup

DIY

I often opt for my DIY coffee cup. A simple glass jar does the trick. Glass does not affect the taste of my coffee, which is why I prefer it to plastic. The only obstacle to overcome when re-using a glass jar, is that it requires some kind of ‘sleeve’ to keep your hands from burning. An easy fix to this problem is to glue some yarn or twine onto your recycled jar, as I have done below. Although, you could also fashion yourself a cardboard sleeve from any old box. Either method will get the job done, and you will have yourself a recycled coffee cup.

Lead by example with the products you buy.

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