The life of a coffee cup: are compostable lids really compostable?

By Luke Toomey and Sian Abraham long

Even the savviest of coffee consumers have experienced the coffee lid confusion. At the condiments counter you’ve asked yourself; do I take the regular lid, or this slightly off white compostable, but just as effective version? Any one of us concerned about the climate crisis will choose whatever option sells us a more environmentally sound version of ourselves. But how compostable is this new phenomenon, really?  

On November 6 of this year, the Minister for Climate Action, Richard Bruton announced that he will be introducing a coffee cup levy to single-use and compostable cups. The new levy, which will be introduced within three years, aims to encourage a pivot towards more sustainable options when it comes to coffee containment.    

                                                                                                  



Compostable coffee lids have become increasingly popular among cafe culture in recent years. Any sustainable alternative has to be a good thing, right? This would be the case if the right infrastructure was in place in Ireland for the industrial composting required of ‘compostable’ cups and lids.

A typical compostable coffee cup lid

Understanding domestic recycling is not intuitive so it’s not surprising that many people believe a cup or lid labelled ‘compostable’ is a better choice for the environment. Arguably, they can be, but only when they’re correctly disposed off. Composting these ‘compostable’ lids and cups, can only happen in a controlled environment – commercial composting.

Composting these ‘compostable’ lids and cups, can only happen in a controlled environment – commercial composting. 

Our public system

In Dublin, we are somewhat in the junior infants equivalent of European waste management services. German cities have made a positive example of themselves by providing segregated waste bins on their streets, for better, more efficient recycling. According to Simon Brock from Dublin City Council (DCC), Dublin has attempted to implement a segregated bin system in the past. These trials, the DCC said, yielded a high contamination rate of recyclable waste, which means they cannot be recycled. 

Dublin City Council collects over 16.5 thousand tonnes of waste per year. This includes waste from public bins, street sweeping and illegal dumping. When our city is collecting this much waste, should it not be utilising the same system as our European counterparts? A second trial of this segregated system is planned to be introduced in the new year in certain areas of Dublin.

A segregated system can only work under a unified public effort to ensure we are correctly separating our waste, be it at home or out and about. Chucking a milky coffee cup in on top of dry, mixed recyclables means anything spoiled is returned to our general, non recyclable waste bin.


Understanding what happens to our coffee cups and lids, compostable or not, allows us to make a better judgement when it comes to choosing how we contain our hot drinks. Scroll through our timeline to discover what happens to any one of the options you might choose.




The life of a coffee cup

Production of a compostable cup

Production of a compostable cup
The majority of the compostable products we see in Irish coffee shops are made by utitilising plant-based products such as PLA (Polylactic acid or polylactide). PLA is created by using fermented starch from plants such as corn, sugarcane and sugar beet. The PLA replaces the need for the plastic lining you will find inside regular coffee cups. This material, PLA, is not water-soluble, so it does a good job of containing your flat white. 

Production of a regular cup

Production of a regular cup

Regular coffee cups are produced using a less environmentally friendly material called polyethylene. This material is the most common plastic and can be found in other products such as children’s toys, plastic bags and your average soft drink bottle. The problem with polyethylene is that it can break down into a micro-plastic over time which spills out into our sea’s and consequently, into our food chain.

Delivery to location

Delivery to location

Most often, you will find that the compostable options offer a more localised delivery system to cut down on carbon emissions and air miles for the eco-friendly clientele. While there are companies offer this service in Ireland, Irish coffee shops, as you may well have noticed commonly source products from overseas such as UK based company, Vegware.

Delivery to location

Delivery to location

Before the coffee cup or lid leaves the manufacturer, brand specific labels are placed on the cups for individual clients. You might notice what’s called the Möbius Loop ♻ on your coffee cups or lids. These are added at the point of manufacture, however, this symbol does not always mean the product is accepted at your recycling system.

Order up!

Order up!

So you’ve chosen the compostable option – go you! If your cafe facilitates a closed loop system (more on that later) then your lid will be commercially composted and returned to the Earth  as nutrient rich soil. 

order up!

order up!

The coffee cup arrives at your usual haunt and is ready for use. Fifteen minutes later you’ve finished your cortado and according to MyWaste.ie, it’s one of 22,000 coffee cups disposed of in Ireland every hour, 528,000 every day or 200 million a year.

Disposal

Disposal

When a compostable lid is placed in either a general or a recycling bin, our current waste management system means that it is returned to a landfill. The conditions in a landfill cannot facilitate these lids breaking down naturally. As a result, they are left with other general waste, and at this point, are not better for the environment than your regular cup or lid option.

Disposal

Disposal

If you’ve made the choice to choose a regular coffee lid, it should be placed into a general waste bin. Coffee lids and cups cannot be recycled through Irelands current waste management infrastructure.

Treefree Cups are made from the fibres of sugar-cane waste and are fully compostable under controlled conditions.
Closing the loop

Coffee shops using these compostable products will ideally separate them from other waste. Once returned the coffee cups and lids are commercially composted in an environment designed to be a perfect place for these products to break down. These conditions will contain the correct balance of microbes, warmth and moisture which makes the process quick and easy.

Take the Treefree Cup, for example. Zeus, the Irish global packaging company, produces one of the only paper-free compostable cups in Ireland which instead, opts for fibrous materials from sugar-cane waste. Businesses that use their products are provided with a special cup collection bin that are returned back to Zeus for composting in order to ‘close the loop’ on biodegradable waste management systems.

Its estimated that less than 1% of compostable cups are actually being composted properly worldwide and so closed loop systems ensures that these cups and lids are composted properly and do not find themselves in a landfill.

Become a VegWare Vigilante?

If we can’t put them in our domestic waste, in public bins then you might think to compost these items at home yourself. While you’re welcome to try your hand at it, according to Vegware.com: “Home composting conditions vary with the skill of the householder, so we don’t make any claims there, but there have been successful trials using hot compost bins.”

Dublin City Council collects over 16.5 thousand tonnes of waste per year. This includes waste from public bins, street sweeping and illegal dumping. When our city is collecting this much waste, should it not be utilising the same system as our European counterparts? A second trial of this segregated system is planned to be introduced in the new year in certain areas of Dublin.

A segregated system can only work under a unified public effort to ensure we are correctly separating our waste, be it at home or out and about. Chucking a milky coffee cup in on top of dry, mixed recyclables means anything spoiled is returned to our general, non recyclable waste bin. 

How is our public waste managed?

“All waste that is deposited in public litter bins goes through processing at a waste facility to extract waste streams for a variety of uses including recycling and for use as SRF (Solid Recovered Fuel) or RSF (Refuse Recovered Fuel),” said Brock.

Dublin City Council collects over 16.5 thousand tonnes of waste every year.

Solid recovered fuel refers to fuel created through a process of dehydrating combustible waste such as biodegradable food waste, paper and kitchen waste, dirt, rocks and clothing. 

Refuse recovered fuel is produced by using whatever is left over from the process of creating an SRF. An RSF is a non-specified waste, this makes it difficult to assure quality and environmental-soundness. 

The future of coffee cups

The current infrastructure does not allow for recycling or composting the coffee lids and cups we’re using every day. So what options have we?

According to MyWaste.ie, a reusable cup used only seven times is more sustainable than a single-use coffee cup and lid – compostable or not. So next time you turn to the condiments counter at your local coffee shop, the only thing you should plan to reach for is the milk.

A better understanding of how our waste and recycling is managed is required to make more environmentally sound decisions about our single-use, non-recyclables and compostables. Often, we might think we are making the right decisions about products which may not mean to be misleading in how environmentally friendly they are. With little infrastructure currently in place to maximise the environmental impact of these new compostable lids, the catering industry and our government alike should place focus and incentives on the use of reusable cups.