The ever-humble coffee bean, taken for granted by most in the general public, is the key ingredient for the coffee industry’s very survival, and the survival of coffee beans depends on its sustainability. From the growers up to the shop retailers, sustainability and environmental issues deeply concern those in the industry. In its own quiet manner, coffee and its purveyors have taken a lead in having their operations focus on various sustainable options in their daily operations, including energy efficient lighting, reduced water usage and recycled products for use in delivering your coffee product.
One of the great concerns is the use of coffee cups. Whether they are made out of a durable material like ceramic or metal, a typical paper petroleum film lined paper cup (with possibly a bit of recycled fiber in it), or one of the newer fully compostable cup and lid products on the market—they all have their positives and negatives. For instance, a typical ceramic or metal vessel requires frequent washing. One might think this is the most environmental friendly option, but in reality the answer is a little “yes” and a lot more “NO”. To really assess the full impact, an operator needs to understand the full context of what it takes to wash that cup or thermos. The carbon footprint is actually quite large. One needs to consider the following: the energy needed to heat the water, the cost of manufacturing, shipping and distribution the soaps and cleaners used to wash them in the hot water (not to mention many of the basic additives to the soaps that are derivatives of petroleum-based chemicals), the waste—or “Gray water”—that goes down the drain and the energy used to pump that waste water, cleaning it at a waste-water treatment facility, and disposing sludge from the water before it can be allowed back into a fresh water source.
On the other hand, your standard single-use paper hot cup with a poly sip hole lid might be a better answer. It does use natural fibers that are renewable, and in some offerings the very paper itself is made of partially recycled material. All the materials are, in theory, recyclable—but, in reality, none really are or cannot be. The reason is because the food-wastes that are left on the paper or plastic contaminantes the recycling of these products. Most of the cups end up in landfills. Paper itself can only be recycled about 3-5 times before becoming so poor in quality that they end up as landfill disposal or compostable material. The same thing is true with the poly lids—the food waste on the lid renders it essentially non-recyclable. The reason is that food waste contaminates the recyclable materials and the necessary processing of those materials—contaminants cannot be allowed or the making of the new materials will be flawed or similar.
That brings us to the development of compostable cups, lids and other service ware. They use much the same materials and energy as single-use paper cups, but with one key difference: All the materials, including the plastic film lining, are made from natural plant raw materials. Even the manufacturing process requires less energy in its overall structure, which results in a reduced carbon footprint. By being compostable, there are significant declines in raw garbage to landfills.
One of the benefits of a community and industry that composts as its entire operation is that composting is local and reduces the need for landfills. It is a local job creator—for instance, a single commercial composting operation creates four jobs while a landfill creates only one, based on figures from the US Composting Council. Also, the compost end product can be used on agricultural crops as a fertilizer, reducing dependency on man-made fertilizers, or home gardens, lawns, erosion control, etc. What you have in compostable cups is a full circle of life use. And this trend is not only happening with cups, lids, take out boxes etc.—but also with plastic bags and food wastes. Food that is thrown out accounts for over 70%, by weight, of all garbage sent to landfills. Think about the tremendous use of energy, soils, fertilizers, etc. needed to grow food that is simply being thrown away. Reversing long-held beliefs and practices to innovations like composting products with food wastes can deliver businesses and communities a sustainable future for generations to come.
Whether you like it or not, Composting is coming.
President of Asean Corporation, parent company of the Stalkmarket family of the branded compostable products for the centerplate foodservice industry. Also serves as President of the Biodegradable Products Institutue, and is an active member of the US Composting Council. National Restaurant Association and various local community social and sustainable community groups in the Portland Oregon area, where Asean has its world headquarters.