The below article has been written by Richard Fine and Gary Smith and was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 November 2017.
Let's face it: Australians are big coffee drinkers. In less than a generation, we have moved from a nation of sedate tea drinkers to a nation of coffee obsessives. We now judge our cities on just how good the coffee is. Or how many baristas they have.
And a lot of the coffee that is drunk in this country comes in what are generally known as disposable or take-away coffee cups.
We use about 1 billion of these cups every year.
As the largest manufacturer and distributor of environmentally sustainable disposable coffee cups in Australia, we are well aware of what this means: the vast majority of those cups and other food service packaging ends up in landfill.
We are aware also of our responsibilities.
The fact is that most of the cups that end up in landfill are recyclable, despite some of the misinformation out there. The problem is that few are recycled, primarily because local authorities and their commercial recycling partners do not want to spend more money on upgrading or updating their existing operations. It's expensive, of course.
There are some excellent examples of local councils doing the right thing on this front, such as Byron Bay Shire, Brisbane City, all of the ACT, Perth City and Shellharbour, here in NSW.
But many others find it easier to just throw the cups into the bigger bin; the bin that ends up as landfill.
Sadly, we can't see that attitude changing in a hurry.
So, while continuing to encourage more councils to recycle our cups, we believe the time has come to find other ways to deal with this huge landfill problem; a problem by the way, that is also troubling policy makers across the world, especially in the United States and Europe.
In other words, we need to stop talking only about recycling – important as recycling remains – and start talking about compostable food service packaging, including coffee cups.
It means we need to start talking about a truly circular economy, where we design and produce food service packaging from environmentally-friendly, rapidly-renewable materials, such as managed paper plantations, sugarcane mulch and bioplastics.
Then comes the hard bit: to help guide that compostable packaging through the economy, from cafe to workplace to specially labelled compost bins.
Eventually, those millions of compostable coffee cups are sent to commercial composting facilities where they are turned into nutrient-rich compost for use at home – or in large scale commercial agriculture.
A major benefit of producing compostable, bio-based food packaging is that it can be diverted from landfill along with any remaining food residues at the end of its life through commercial composting.
In the process, we are eliminating the methane gas that organics emit when they biodegrade in landfill.
This is not futuristic thinking by any means. It's happening in the United States and Europe already. In France, for instance, all non-compostable foodservice packaging will be phased out by 2020. And in Germany and the Netherlands there is almost zero waste going to landfill.
Here in Australia, BioPak recently signed an agreement with one of the big four banks, which has converted all employee food service outlets in its head office building to collect compostable food packaging.
And we will soon launch a national program to encourage cafes and other venues to put our compostable cups and packaging into special bins, which will be collected and sent to be turned into compost.
In Britain, where the debate has accelerated in the past year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – a think-tank that works with business, government and academia to build a framework for a circular economy – has released a report looking into compostable packaging.
After three years of investigation, the interim report concluded that compostable packaging provides the only genuine solution to ensure food service packaging, including coffee cups, is diverted from landfill.
In a true circular economy, the ultimate objective is zero material going to landfill.
We are still a long way away from that objective but we are starting on that particular journey – one compostable coffee cup at a time.
Richard Fine is founder of BioPak and Gary Smith is chief executive officer.
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