Observer  /  Law  /  Technology

Would you eat your coffee cup to help reduce plastic waste?

Original publication by Iskhandar Razak for abc.net.au on 28 January 2023

Melbourne’s famous coffee culture is moving towards a plastic-free future.
(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

Edible takeaway cups and library-style mug-borrowing schemes are on the menu at a growing number of cafes as possible solutions to Australia’s addiction to plastic convenience. 

It’s estimated more than 1 billion takeaway cups go to landfill in Australia each year.

That’s because most takeaway cups and lids contain plastic elements to make them water-proof, making them difficult to recycle.

On February 1, Victoria will enact a ban on single-use plastics like straws, drink stirrers, polystyrene cups, cutlery, plates and cotton bud swabs.

It follows similar policies already in place in much of the rest of the country, many of which are set to be expanded in 2023.

Key points:

  • Victoria’s ban on single-use plastics will come into effect on February 1
  • The legislation covers plastic straws, plates and other items, but not coffee cups
  • Eateries are moving away from plastic without the government push, including some selling edible cups

But most kinds of takeaway cups aren’t included.

The National Retail Association (NRA) says the change brings Victoria in line with most of the nation, but takeaway drinks are difficult.

“Coffee cups, however, are a really complex thing,” NRA policy manager Ebony Johnson said.

“Anything that needs to hold water, needs to protect people from burns. And food safety must come first.”

Victoria’s Environment Minister Ingrid Stitt said the incoming ban would have a big impact, but the state and the nation were not quite ready to go further.

Many outlets have moved to biodegradable cups and lids.
(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

“We’ve got more work to do before we introduce a ban on something like coffee cups,” she said.

“We don’t want to have a situation where we create unintended consequences, by bringing in bans quicker than we have been able to develop solutions.”

Shared mugs and edible cups join the ‘solution’

Western Australia is considering phasing in changes to takeaway cups this year, and a growing number of Victorian eateries are taking the plunge without a government push.

Carte Crepes owner Peter Zhang holds the reusable cups he uses to serve coffee.
(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

At the University of Melbourne, 15 eateries have signed up to a shared mug scheme.

“It feels good to be part of the solution,” said Peter Zhang, owner and operator at Carte Crepes.

Under the scheme, with a company called Green Caffeen, people can take a mug for their drinks and return them at any participating eatery.

Like the library, it is free unless it doesn’t get returned on time.

The number of customers using the reusable cups is slowly growing.
(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

Mr Zhang said few customers took part early on, but slowly word had grown.

About 20 customers a day were now participating, he said, meaning thousands of cups a year were being saved.

“Even one cup is important,” he said.

Into Coffee aims for a zero-waste business.
(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)\

At the Into Coffee cafe in nearby Collingwood, there is an even stricter no-plastic policy.

Customers either bring their own re-usable vessel, borrow one with a deposit, or, for an extra fee buy an edible cup made of oats and grains.

“It is actually, quite a challenge. We turn away quite a few customers,” the cafe’s Luke Phillips said.

The cafe sells the edible cups at cost, to encourage change towards a zero-plastic future.

Luke Phillips says his cafe has to turn away customers occasionally as it aims to eliminate waste.
(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

“We’re trying to be a stepping stone from where the community and Melbourne is right now, and where we are trying to get to,” he said.

“Some people do get them every day. So that’s some validation there.”

Customers at Into Coffee who tried the edible cups and spoke to the ABC were surprised and enthusiastic, saying they tasted a little bit like Weet-Bix.

Into Coffee concedes many people will not eat a cup every day. Also, the cups are not gluten free so may not suit all dietary needs.

But the cups are biodegradable and can be composted. 

“The real solution is people thinking about what they do. Paying attention to their habits,” Mr Phillips said.

“You don’t have to stop using single-use cups straight away, but make little changes and we’ll get there.”

Melbourne coffee drinker Tracey Cho tries an edible coffee cup.
(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

Collingwood resident Tracy Cho said the plastic-free alternative was “like a waffle cup”.

“It doesn’t soak. It holds the drink,” she said.

Donna Stevens had a cold iced coffee in an edible cup and said the experience was “fantastic”.

“It came with a big solid ice block and it hasn’t softened,” she said.

“Still crunchy. Not sweet, mustn’t have sugar. Great idea.”

The edible cups are made from oats and other grains.
(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

Environment Minister Ingrid Stitt said banning disposable cups was on the government’s “radar”, but refused to set a date for when all forms of single-use cups could not be sold.

“We are committed to reducing what goes to landfill by 80 per cent by 2030,” she said.

“Our bans go further than some states and territories.

“And we are looking at what we can do with other states and territories in the future.”

Environment Protection Authority Victoria will police the ban on single-use plastics when it begins on February 1.

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