The Trouble with Cups

By Chad Trewick

As a specialty coffee industry we have a hot cup problem, a great big cup problem. Many estimates cite as much as 90 percent of our customers leave our shops with cup in hand to be disposed at a final destination. As a result, there is much urgency to do right by the cups we use. Many of us are trying to do just that, but it’s easier said than done.

While we can certainly provide in-house disposal options, that is only a solution to a small part of the problem. Because so much of what we sell leaves our four walls, it creates a significant challenge to solving the disposable cup dilemma.

In addition, we need to balance doing the right thing against the consumer’s desire for convenience. While we should all applaud efforts to collect single-use hot cups for upcycling (separating plastic or poly liners from the pulp using energy-intensive processes to extend the usable lifecycle of materials), we must also acknowledge that these efforts are wholly dependent on the convenience of collection plans. Until final points of use are identified (i.e. offices, schools, etc.) and supported with collection options, we remain dependent on users responsibly disposing of their cups.

These facts lead me to believe that the solution we need to collectively pursue is a fully compostable cup. And, not just compostable. The cup needs to break down so the paper pulp, energy, and nutrients contained therein become “food” for subsequent generations of crops. And in addition, the pulp that composes the cups must come from responsible sources.

However, what’s most responsible in a compostable cup? Is it a large percentage of post-consumer waste? Is virgin pulp sourced from responsibly managed forests better? Is the answer a combination of the above? What about ensuring commercial composters are available to take cups in a given area? Today, it can be pretty hard to find the definitive answer to these questions, as we are just figuring all of this stuff out. We know we would absolutely do well to include some certification of good forestry practices here as well as of the post-consumer content; today’s labeling of these criteria can be pretty loose. Perhaps most importantly here—and often forgotten—is that last point, however, and that is the need for commercial composting facilities so that these more responsible cups can achieve their designed use at the end of their lifecycle: compost.

The complexity of an industry-wide compostable solution deepens due to the throw-back (read: false) belief that failure/leakage rates of compostable cups are higher than their poly- or plastic-lined counterparts. This, in our industry, is a disastrous perception when you consider that buyers are transporting hot liquid, and need to feel safe and secure while doing so. Herein lies the rub: what company, in good conscience, can sign themselves up for large-scale decreased performance—whether perceived or real? The caution exhibited by many is understood even if unfounded.

Our industry is dependent on cup purveyors and their continued work to eliminate petrol-based components in single-use drink ware, while upholding safety standards. And we know that’s no easy task. We understand that innovative manufacturers are working fast to find solutions as severe limitations or even outright bans could be on the horizon for using petrol-based components. To which I say: Faster please, faster! And, to add one more item for the to-do list, please work with municipalities to ensure proper disposal facilities for the products out there on the market.

I would like to end with a plea to our industry to embrace compostable solutions for single use. Until we achieve some economies to scale through heightened demand, these more responsible solutions will carry hefty and prohibitive price premiums making the decision to use them a difficult one when protecting the bottom line. Responsible must become our normal.

Note: One disclaimer—while compostable cups are the ideal solution in my view, I am aware that the cups must end up in appropriate composting facilities. If they don’t, they run the risk of contributing to methane gas production and consuming precious space in landfills. On the other hand, if a compostable cup ends up in a landfill, it will decompose more quickly than traditional petroleum-based liner cups.

Chad Trewick, senior director of coffee and tea, began his career with Caribou Coffee in 1993. His charge is to uphold the highest quality standards while encouraging farmers to engage in Rainforest Alliance certification to comply with Caribou’s commitment to 100% certified supply. He strives to strengthen the supply chain through relationships at origin. Chad continues to scour the globe in search of the world’s finest coffees and works to ensure mutually beneficial relationships identifying where positive impacts can be made. Chad serves on the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Sustainability Council. He works toward the mainstreaming of responsible business practices; he is passionate about coffee, sustainability, and preserving the planet’s people and places for future generations.