Following a recent hit TV program that shone the spotlight on plastic waste, the pressure is on restaurant and café businesses to provide truly eco-friendly packaging. Shane Conroy reports

The Truman Café in Melbourne created a social-media storm when they posted Instagram photos of their eco-friendly solution to disposal packaging—the ‘avolatte’. While the café later admitted that coffee served in discarded avocado skins was a satirical jab at hipster culture, the gimmick did draw attention to Australia’s disposable packaging crisis. It’s estimated that around one billion single-use coffee cups end up in Australian landfill every year, equating to about 60,000 kilograms of plastic waste annually.

That’s a problem the hit ABC program War on Waste recently tackled head on when host Craig Reucassel filled a Melbourne tram with paper coffee cups to highlight the fact that most disposable coffee cups are not recyclable.

Of course, the problem of disposable packaging is not new for many restaurant and café owners who have been struggling with the issue for years.

A complex problem

Many restaurant and café owners strongly encourage the adoption of reusable cups with discounts offered to customers who bring their own.

However, according to a UK study, these discounts may be of little environmental benefit. Rather than discounting for reusable cups, the 2017 study by researchers at Cardiff University revealed that applying an extra fee for the use of disposable cups could provide a better solution.

The study found that a discount given to customers for using reusable coffee cups did not increase their use. However, the provision of free reusable cups combined with an extra fee charged for the use of disposable cups could increase the use of reusable cups by 12.5 per cent and save up to 300 million disposable coffee cups from landfill annually.

However, many restaurant and café owners rightly fear that adding an extra fee for the use of disposable cups would price them out of the market. Rather, a fee system would require a coordinated industry-wide or governmental approach.

In the meantime many restaurant and café owners have switched to biodegradable cups and food packaging for its perceived environmental benefits. However, confusion persists among venue owners and customers alike about how to best dispose of biodegradable packaging.

Say ‘no’ to plastic

Single-use disposable cups are generally not recyclable due to their plastic waterproof interior lining, and may even contaminate other recyclable waste when added to general recycle bins.

While biodegradable cups and food packaging tend to use an additive in the plastic lining that allows it to break down over time, they should still not be disposed of in general recycling bins—although some local councils do accept coffee cups as part of their recycling programs.

“The problem with biodegradable packaging is that there is no certified time frame it has to adhere to, so it could break down in three months or take 500 years to degrade and still be called biodegradable,” says Paul Rayner, director of Vegware Australia.

“And biodegradable packaging tends to have a percentage of plastic in it that just breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic.”

“Customers want ethically-sourced, organic coffee, and they also want to know that that cup they drink it in is not going into landfill.”—Will Lorenzi, president, Smart Planet Technologies

Vegware manufactures a range of low-carbon compostable food service packaging made from plant-based materials rather than plastic. These are designed to completely break down in as little as 12 weeks.

However, compostable cups, while plastic-free and faster to break down than biodegradable packaging, must be separated from general recycling and sent to commercial composting facilities.

This may be viable for large venues that can gather high volumes of compostable waste for mass transportation to a commercial composting facility, but remains a challenge for consumers who may not have the same collection facilities available at their workplaces or homes.

Looking ahead

The good news is that there may be a universal solution just around the corner. California-based Smart Planet Technologies has developed a mineralised resin alternative to plastic-based interior barriers. EarthCoating can be applied to all types of paperboard barrier packaging, including coffee cups, and may be repulped through existing paper recycling networks.

“Whether you’re talking about biodegradable, compostable or regular poly cups, it’s all still material that at the end of the day recyclers don’t want,” says Will Lorenzi, president, Smart Planet Technologies. “To them, it’s like having a petrol car and someone saying I’ll give you 50 per cent off on diesel. It’s still a material that is incompatible with their current systems.

“But once you make a coating like ours that doesn’t burden the recyclers with the need for an extra process, it becomes a valuable material to recycle.”

Smart Planet Technologies is currently working with Australian packaging manufacturer Detpak to launch a range of fully recyclable paper cups using EarthCoating technology.

While solving Australia’s waste crisis is a responsibility shared by all involved, Lorenzi calls on restaurant and café owners to take the vital first step.

“There’s an opportunity here for restaurant and café owners to be stewards of the solution,” he says. “Customers want ethically-sourced, organic coffee, and they also want to know that that cup they drink it in is not going into landfill.”

Whether you like it or not, in an increasingly eco-conscious world your packaging is part of your brand. But it also offers an opportunity to build customer loyalty and create a competitive advantage as customers become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of the waste they generate.

“The public really cares about this issue and wants it solved,” says Lorenzi.

“Especially after the War on Waste, virtually every café wants to be able to share a message that they are being responsible. Being able to put something on your paper cups that tells a good story to your customers is a powerful branding tool.” .

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