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One state to ban common item Australians love – but there’s a huge issue.

Emma Levett - Last updated 28th, March 2023 Australians use up to two billion of these every year. But now, as one state bans them entirely, there’s a huge problem ahead. A morning coffee is an Australian institution. But there is a catch: The single-use takeaway coffee cup is a massive problem to get rid of.

Usually lined with plastic that’s bonded with cardboard, they can’t be put in the recycling bin.

Now, Western Australia has become the first state to make a real attempt to do something about it.

“Each year, Western Australians use more than 182 million takeaway coffee cups,” a Department of Water and Environmental Regulation spokesperson said. “Most takeaway coffee cups end up in landfill, but many are also littered.”

From March 2024, non-compostable coffee cups will be banned in the state. Takeaway customers will be encouraged to bring a reusable coffee cup with them or businesses will be required to provide compostable coffee cups.

WA is banning non-compostable single-use coffee cups from March 24. Picture: iStock

It’s a positive start on the journey to solving the coffee cup conundrum, but the ban is not without issues.

“We are taking a single-use item and replacing it with a compostable alternative but this creates another waste stream,” said Bree Jennings, from Plastic Free WA, the group tasked with helping retailers transition to the WA Government’s plastic ban.

“It’s fantastic, but it’s still single-use, and the problem remains on what we will do with this item.”

There’s currently no composting facility in WA able to accept the huge number of compostable cups about to hit the waste stream. In fact the advice for WA residents who have the new food organics and garden organics bin (FOGO) is still to put their compostable cups in the red bins bound for landfill.

“Compostable and non-compostable cups look very similar,” said a Department of Water and Environmental Regulation spokesperson. “If you are unsure, avoid contamination in the FOGO waste stream and dispose of it in a red-lidded bin.”

WA is going to ban single-use coffee cups that aren't compostable. But the state doesn't have a facility to compost the huge numbers of cups expected. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images

In landfill, compostable cups don’t have the right conditions to biodegrade, so they decompose slowly, releasing greenhouse gases. This means the coffee cup problem is still a problem.

“The transition is not going to be slick,” Ms Jennings said. “The WA Government has gone first so there are going to be leanings along the way. We see this as a transition with reusables as the ultimate goal.”

There are no promises a complete single-use coffee cup ban will happen in WA or in other states, but Ms Jennings and other environmentalists remain hopeful.

“A [total] coffee cup ban is not popular but look at what happened with shopping bags. People said it was impossible but it takes momentum and regulation and it can happen,” she said. “We’ll never get it right if there’s a discussion about what bin coffee cups should go in – it means there will always be some level of contamination. We need to be looking at solutions to get rid of this waste item and we want reusables at the front of the agenda.”

While WA is leading the charge on banning coffee cups, the other states have no immediate plans to follow. It means other options are open – and the Simply Cups program is approaching the problem from a very different angle.

From coffee cups to park benches

Simply Cups has developed the tech to recycle the previously un-recyclable coffee cups into products including building materials, park benches and, more recently, asphalt.

In February it announced the opening of Australia’s first road, in Penrith, NSW, made with recycled coffee cups.

Simply Cups collects plastic bonded coffee cups and turns them into products. Picture: Simply Cups

Australia's first road made using recycled coffee cups in Penrith, NSW. Picture: Pak-Pave

“There’s another road planned in April and these two roads will use 85 percent of the coffee cups collected in the Penrith LGA over the year,” said Brendan Lee, the circular economy manager at Closed Loop, which operates the Simply Cups program. “Roads are a fantastic solution because they use such large quantities [of cups].”

The Simply Cups program, has been running since 2017 and, with cup collection points in over 1500 locations, including 630 7-Eleven stores nationwide, it’s currently recycling one million takeaway cups every month.

'We've always known that Australians using one billion coffee cups a year is an underestimate. It's more like two billion," Mr Lee said.

“We’re constantly working with companies on using this waste in different ways. It’s exciting to find ways to reuse the fibres to make better products. I would encourage avoidance of these single-use items where possible but we need to cater for everyone.”

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