Coffee Cups Closing the Loop

Jun 14, 2019

Straight talk: the health of the planet ain’t great. But there’s still a few reasons to feel optimistic about winning the war on waste.

‘Optimistic’ isn’t a word used often when it comes to the state of the environment. Despite our best intentions, and not insignificant efforts, there’s rarely good news about the planet.

But, believe it or not, there are a few areas in which we’re actually making headway. While climate change is still as dire as ever, renewable energy has advanced in leaps and bounds: Britain went a week without burning coal (the first time since 1882); Portugal generated enough sustainable energy to power the whole country for a month; even Australia installed the world’s largest lithium ion battery array. While the oceans remain in serious trouble, the world’s second-largest coral reef was recently removed from UNESCO’s list of endangered places, thanks to conservation efforts by folks in Belize. And, when it comes to plastics, we’re actually starting to do okay.

In 2017, Australians collectively freaked out when the ABC’s War on Waste revealed the shocking impact that the humble coffee cup was having on the environment. Host Craig Reucassel highlighted the fact that the country is one of the world’s worst when it comes to generating municipal waste, ringing in at No. 5 on the global garbage scale, generating 52 megatonnes of waste every year. And, food packaging makes up a hefty portion.

The reason people were so shocked by the program’s findings was that everyone thought we were doing the right thing. But, even though we were all tossing our cardboard coffee-cups into the recycling bin, it turns out that the plastic lining in most takeaway cups takes 50 years to decompose. Which means they’re not recyclable.

“I guess people didn’t know,” observes Tom Lunn, General Manager for Marketing and Innovation at Detpak. “People were so shocked by the fact that you know, they thought, “Oh this is a bit of paper that I’m using, clearly it’s recyclable.” And they felt cheated.”

Those working in the frontline – restaurants, bars and cafes – realised pretty quickly that consumers were angry. “We had a lot of questions and queries from our customers about what we could do to do more,” recalls Megan Evans, Marketing Manager at Axil Coffee, a Hawthorn roastery with cafes all across the city. “The realm of takeaway cups was something that we really tried to investigate, but there weren’t a lot of recyclable options out there.”


But thankfully, some in the industry were prepared for the backlash. DetPak, for instance, had been developing RecycleMe, a fully-recyclable coffee cup that could be processed pretty-much anywhere. “We’d been working two years ahead of that with the brands who knew that this was coming, who knew that they needed to improve the sustainability of the packaging,” recalls Tom.

From Tom’s point of view, the public’s newfound passion for sustainable packaging was an opportunity, not a disaster. A chance for brands to deploy the innovations they’d been considering. “The people in specialty coffee are a socially conscious bunch,” he says. “But The War on Waste is really what made it easy for those brands to go and do something, and get some buy in-from consumers. So definitely it helped a lot.”

So, together with a number of cafes and roasters, DetPak rolled out RecycleMe. Instead of using a plastic lining – like most takeaway cups – DetPak deployed a mineralised resin that separates from the paper once it’s soaked. “With a normal coffee cup, if it went into any of the paper mills in Australia, you’d only get a 20 to 30 percent fibre recovery because the plastic bonds really strongly and takes a lot of fibre with it through that process,” Tom explains. “Whereas this mineralised coating on ours separates very easily. Because it’s got calcium carbonate in it, it’s heavier, doesn’t wick the water and it comes out in the centrifuge process very easily. With no investment from the mill, they’re getting 95% fibre recovery from a cup with our lining. So it’s highly recyclable.”

At this stage, the catch is that RecycleMe cups need to be processed separately from kerbside recycling. Coffee-cups present a problem for roadside collection in terms of MRF separation. “It’s not so much about making the cup recyclable or whether the mills can handle it, because we’ve solved all of that. That’s easy,” says Tom. “Ultimately everyone would love for kerbside recycling to be able to handle all of these technologies. But it’s the fact that MRF separation is a real struggle for a coffee cup.”

DetPak, however, has forged a partnership with Shred-X, who with 50,000 collection points around the country is in a unique position to return the packaging. From there, the cups are taken to the Maryvale Mill, where they’re processed into copy paper.

The process isn’t quite as smooth as tossing rubbish into the nearest available bin, but it’s pretty simple nevertheless. Axil Coffee has made the process as seamless as possible, with recycling points in their cafes and stations in nearby office lobbies. “In a lot of offices all the paper removal is done through Shred-X so they could have their own in-house office initiative,” says Megan. “If it means that they just leave a cup on their desk for a week and then build up a collection and drop it off on a Friday or something, it doesn’t matter. It’s just about making the time to make that conscious effort to return it.”

And, honestly, is it that unreasonable to expect the consumer to make some effort on the planet’s behalf? “Having an impact involves everyone,” reasons Megan. “So, we’ve listened to our consumers and we’ve developed and put forward this product, and now it definitely is up to the consumer to actually do the end step.”

To bolster the recycling effort, DetPak has pioneered an innovative traceability program, with individual barcodes on each cup guaranteeing the packaging has made its way home.

While the emblematic coffee-cup problem is nearing a solution, the larger issue of food packaging waste is still to be addressed. Sure, Federal and State Governments passed legislation last year insisting that all food packaging be recyclable by 2025, and a number of states have banned single use plastic bags. But just because a product is recyclable doesn’t necessarily mean someone is recycling it. Nevertheless, companies like DetPak and Axil are pushing forward.

Next cab off the rank is coffee bags, with Tom and his team working on a new packaging that eschews the standard foil lining for the mineralised resin that both keeps beans fresh and closes the loop. “The wholesale coffee industry deliver thousands and thousands of bags of coffee a day from roasters to cafes. And most of those are not recyclable,” Tom explains. “That’s next.”

For businesses like DetPak and Axil, it’s a rare moment when the stars align on both sustainability and smart business. With the public clamoring for solutions in the war on waste, it’s a golden opportunity for innovative companies to provide it. Though Megan is under no illusions about the scale of one company’s impact, she believes that it’s these kind of small-scale solutions that will ultimately make a difference. “We know that being a medium size business our impact is definitely something that we can work on,” she says. “We’re so a part of peoples everyday lives, whether it is your morning coffee or you’re going to your favourite sushi shop for lunch, or you get take away for dinner. It’s easy for hospitality to have an impact.”

Don’t get too comfortable, though. The push to solve the plastic problem is still far from solved. But unlike other issues humankind is wrestling with, the problem of plastics is inherently solvable. Which, according to Tom is at least one reason to be optimistic: “There’s a lot of doom and gloom of the waste issue, which is helpful to make sure that everyone’s serious about doing something, but I actually think there is behaviour change. And I think it’s going to be long term too. I don’t think it’s a flash in the pan.”

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