The great coffee cup recycling challenge

DRINK UP: New Zealand's caffeine-loving public gets through about 180 million disposable cups a year.
Fairfax NZ
DRINK UP: New Zealand's caffeine-loving public gets through about 180 million disposable cups a year.

A typical New Zealand-made coffee cup begins life in the forests of Russia, after which a Finnish company coats the paper in plastic and ships it to Henderson, West Auckland, where Huhtamaki shapes it into takeaway cups.

The caffeine-loving public gets through about 180 million disposable cups a year, including ones made overseas, says Huhtamaki market manager of food service Jeff Mosen. Most of the cups end up in landfills.

The sheer waste would make our forebears turn in their graves, says Meredith Graham, education and marketing manager at recycling company Visy.

"They'd say, 'Really? You buy coffee when you're out and you throw the cup away?"'

Enter a new co-operative effort between the country's biggest takeaway coffee seller BP, Visy, Huhtamaki, Coca-Cola and public recycling cheerleader Love NZ, to encourage people to recycle the cups.

Many people wrongly think they can recycle the cups already, says Love NZ manager Lyn Mayes, but in fact, only Christchurch and Auckland (except Waitakere and North Shore) have facilities to process wet-strength paper (the plastic-coated stuff used for hot and cold drinking cups and Tetra Pak cartons) from home recycling bins.

By definition, most people drink takeaway coffee when they are out, and recycling receptacles for coffee cups at public places and events have been relatively few and far between.

The campaign – complete with specially stickered recycling bins announcing that they can now take coffee cups – hopes to change that and will begin collecting cups at Auckland's Chinese lantern festival in February, carrying on to Wellington and elsewhere as recycling arrangements allow.

The ultimate goal is to join the dots between between caffeine-hungry punters, the few companies that can sort wet-strength paper in New Zealand, and buyers for the paper fibre overseas.

New Zealanders may have arrived late to the espresso party, but for the past two decades they been drinking enough flat whites, long blacks and cappuccinos to make up for lost time.

The cup problem is "screaming out for a solution", says Zeke Alley, head of purchasing at pioneer Wellington coffee roaster Cafe L'Affare. Cafe L'Affare's wholesale business alone gets through tens of thousands of cups a month, making it Huhtamaki's biggest cup customer after BP.

Meanwhile BP, purveyor of about 7million takeaway coffees a year, is already collecting cups at its flagship Lunn Avenue petrol station in Auckland and Mayes hopes the likes of McDonald's and Restaurant Brands (Starbucks, KFC and Pizza Hutt) will follow suit.

Mayes' goal in the first year is to divert about 20 per cent of the 5000 tonnes of wet-strength paper New Zealand uses every year from landfills.

Once collected, the cups will continue their global journey to Australia, India, China, or Korea, where bigger populations allow the building of specialist, washing machine-like tubs that can slough the paper from its waterproof plastic coating.

The fibre could return to New Zealand as a shoe box, or the back of a toy packet or other so-called "low-grade" paper products that do not require pristine smoothness.

To some green advocates, though, sending thousands of disposable cups offshore is only slightly preferable to landfilling them.

Sustainable Business Network head Rachel Brown says that grabbing a mug from your home or the office is a much better option because it creates no extra environmental footprint. Most cafes are helpful, she says and if not, "my response is, 'Fine I'll go and buy a coffee elsewhere"'.

"If you think about someone who is drinking two coffees a day with both bottoms [cups] and tops [lids], that is a large amount of waste that could easily not be generated," says Brown.

"Recycling is particularly useful if it stays in the country, but it's a volumes game and it is a challenge when you've got such a small country."

Mayes says New Zealand could eventually build its own recycling facilities, possibly with the help of contestable Government waste subsidies.

She acknowledges the better option would be to stop using disposable cups.

This year saw the rise of popular reusable plastic cups such as the Keep Cup – designed, like disposable ones, to fit into car holders and coffee machines – which claim to greatly reduce water, energy and greenhouse gases.

But Mayes says that most people's scruples do not extend that far, yet.

"If we can find a [recycling] solution, why wouldn't we?" she says. "We have to work with the world that we currently live in."

That also means acknowledging the limits of biodegradable cups, says Mosen.

Alley says that many cafes would like to use biodegradable cups, despite the 30 per cent higher price. But they, too, present problems.

THE vegetable-based waterproof layer used in Huhtamaki's biodegradable cups will not break down in landfills or a home compost bin, and it acts as a food contaminant in recycling bins. The only way to deal with it is to send it to an industrial-grade composting facility.

"There are very few of those in New Zealand – one in Christchurch and one in Tuakau," says Mosen, who estimates that biodegradables make up less than 1 per cent of Huhtamaki's cup business.

Where biodegradables work well is inside closed environments, such as film sets and music festivals, where they can be easily collected, he says.

"Even if we had a bin here at the cafe, by definition the takeaway cups don't stay here, and I don't see people walking back to the cafe just to bring the cup back," says Alley.

Mosen has come across other environmental issues, too.

"The biopolymer coating is sourced from vegetable matter and, at the moment, that can compete with the human food chain ... you get people clearing forestry to plant corn," he says. "[And] to actually make that biopolymer is very energy-intensive."

After considering the options, Huhtamaki decided recycling was best.

Which presented the next challenge. Only two cities have large facilities that can separate cups from other recyclables and process them, and transporting materials the length of the country raises questions about greenhouse gas emissions, says Graham.

If cup recycling is rolled out to the whole country, either more facilities or an efficient mode of transport is needed. Mosen says that once Auckland has a system, it will be easier to see how it could work in other centres.

"It's a matter of working out what can happen," says Graham.

"We're just at the learning stage."

At the moment Visy, which has the contract with Auckland Council to process most of its recycling, seems the company most obviously positioned to take cups for processing.

It can sort wet-strength paper at its new Onehunga plant and it also has access to overseas markets.

Visy's eight Australian paper mills get first dibs, says Graham.

They have the technology to burn the leftover plastic in a closed system without releasing dangerous gases, and to send the resulting energy to the electricity grid.

At other plants, the plastic is simply discarded.

"If they [Visy's Australian plants] are full to capacity, the material might end up going overseas to Korea, India, China – one of the emerging markets," says Graham.

She says that although offshore recycling has been controversial in the past, people are slowly warming to it. "People are starting to understand that we just don't have the technologies here to process or recycle everything."

Because New Zealand lacks plastic recyclers, for example, Visy has to send the milk bottles it collects overseas for processing and then re-import them to make soft drink bottles. Any concerns that material might simply be dumped overseas are unfounded, says Graham.

"We've got a chain of responsibility, so people buying our products have got to be authorised first, and that generally involves a lot of investigation into their processes and what they're doing with materials," she says.

"I don't think people actually understand how sought-after [recycled material] is and that people actually pay top dollar [for it]."


Almost 9 per cent of the price of a $4 takeaway coffee is the cost of the cup – and many cafes will offer a discount to encourage you to bring your own.

A typical deal is a 50-cent discount or a free upsize to a bigger coffee for people who bring reusable cups.

Zeke Alley, head of purchasing at Wellington coffee roaster Cafe L'Affare, says a small paper coffee cup sells for about 20c plus 10c extra for the plastic lid.

A bigger cup is 5c extra.

When the lid and cup are combined, the cost of packaging is not much less than the cost of the milk and coffee in an average latte (about 50c).

Alley says the apparently high mark-up for labour and other costs is because every cup must be individually made by a barista. "There is no way you can streamline it."

Then there are cafe overheads such as rent and electricity.

"It looks like it's an amazingly lucrative thing but you have to sell a lot [of coffee] to make a lot of dollars."

Aside from the cost savings, Australian reusable cup manufacturer Keep Cup estimates someone with a five-coffee-a-week habit would save about 14 kilograms of landfill, produce half the carbon emissions, use half the energy and about one-third of the water in a year using their own cup rather than disposable cups.