Coffee cups are in the news again but I have some alternative facts and a butt joke!
This article is part my personal crusade to convince the world to classify coffee cups as recyclable in the commingled recycling system. You'll find yellow topped (and sometimes blue topped) commingled bins at domestic kerbside, in public places and in commercial offices and factories.
My first article[i] pointed out that coffee cups have half as much plastic lining as milk cartons and so I am encouraging the supply chain to come together, reach a consensus and address the widespread consumer confusion that exists.
It was comforting to learn that I’m not alone in pushing against a very strong tide; thanks to the many people who’ve expressed their support for this cause.
This article is extra special though: it looks at what we as consumers can do to help to make coffee cups recyclable and it’s been created by my whole family!
Coffee cups can cause headaches at facilities that separate commingled recyclables, called MRFs (materials recovery facilities). This is because the vast majority of MRFs need paper items to be 2-D so they ‘stick’ to the inclined conveyors and travel up to the paper stream. In contrast, 3-D paper/cardboard items will ‘bounce’ down these conveyors and wrongly travel to the plastics stream, causing contamination.
Now the compactor truck will generally do a good job of crushing the cups flat, but the cups will often stay in a 3-D shape due to the way they sit with other recyclables or because the truck is not full and so maximum compaction is not applied. As a result they remain bouncy not sticky.
Other Troublesome Paper Products
Experiments I've conducted at MRFs have highlighted issues with other paper/cardboard items that remain 3-D such as:
- Egg cartons;
- Mobile phone boxes; and
- Small laundry powder cartons.
For each of these examples, the consumer can assist the brand owners and recyclers by flattening these packaging items prior to recycling - they do need our help.
The general rule is that if it is paper or cardboard, it should be made as wide and flat as possible, which also applies to: coffee cups; takeaway juice and soft drink cups; and ice cream cartons.
Lunch with My Family
A couple of months back I was having lunch with my family and raised the topic of coffee cups. I had just returned to Melbourne from Sydney and noticed that bins at the airports have different messages for the disposal/recycling of coffee cups – no wonder consumers are confused.
I explained how the cups need to be made flat to give them the best chance of reaching the paper stream at the MRF (my family love it when I talk waste at lunch!).
The problem though is that if you squash the cup on the side, the base may still be standing up so it’ll still be 3-D. Also, squashing cups on the floor wouldn’t be appreciated by cafe owners or acceptable to consumers, so that's not the answer.
My eldest son Tom then said, “you might need to push the lip of the base inwards to crush it”, which turned out to be a very promising step towards solving this part of the puzzle.
AIP Technical Forum
As a speaker at the AIP (aipack.com.au) Technical Forum in the following week, I suggested to the packaging specialists that one needs to “push and pinch” the cup to make it flat (see photo above), before recycling it in a commingled system. This involves:
1. Pushing the lip of the base on opposite sides of the cup; and
2. Pinching the base so it collapses into the cup along the ‘push line’.
I demonstrated how this can be done whilst retaining the last bit of flat white with no spills and it can be done before you've walked to the bin (sorry, but you'll need to put your phone in your pocket!).
I had the support of 'Siri Smiles' (my colleague's stage name) for our presentation. She subsequently gave the idea some thought and suggested a better set of consumer instructions:
“To recycle with ease, pinch and squeeze my bottom please”!
Pinch & Squeeze Campaign
This approach to flattening coffee cups and other 3-D paper items will assist recovery in the Mixed Paper stream at the MRF.
Given the ABC's ‘War on Waste’ will shortly be declaring an opposing view in Australia, as occurred last year in the UK, it sounds fanciful to start a crusade to ask the community to recycle flattened coffee cups in the kerbside bin.
However, given the amazing support I’ve received from the LinkedIn community, cup manufacturers, MRFs and paper commodity traders in the last few weeks, I feel it’s time for us to work together to recover an extra 10,000 tonnes of paper each year - and that's just in Australia.
For the campaign to be a success though, we may need to ask George (or Tom!) to dress up as a coffee cup and tell us all to “pinch and squeeze my bottom please”!
My next article will explain how the Institute Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Scrap Specifications Circular advises that paper items with polymer coatings are suitable for the Mixed Paper stream that is traded on the global market.
This is because the coffee cups present in the Mixed Paper collected at MRFs will only make up a very small proportion of all the collected paper, even if we collected 100% of cups.
I have also received advice from many key people within the Australian recycling industry, who concur with this view - more on that to follow.
Thanks to Tom for the idea, Siri Smiles for the sexy instructions, Chris (my beautiful wife) for the photos and Will (8) for his critical review (he didn’t want to miss out on being part of a butt joke!).
Anthony Peyton is the Director of GreenChip, environmental specialists in the areas of packaging, waste prevention and life cycle assessment. He is also the Southern Director and Victorian Chair of the Australian Institute of Packaging (aipack.com.au) and the Director of PREP Design (prep.org.au). The opinions expressed in this article are only mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other organisations I am associated with – please give me some time!