Single Use CupsWhether it is a Chai Latte or double shot flat white the morning beverage that you sip on your way into work is most likely in a single use plastic lined paper based cup. That cup will stay with you for around thirty minutes and then you will dispose of it. The most likely receptacle you will choose being a rubbish bin thereby causing your discarded cup to join more than 2.7 million others that enter landfill sites across Australia each day.[1]

Even if you put them into your recycle bin they get ejected from the process on the sorting line and sent to landfill as most paper cups are made of about 95% high quality paper fibre with 5% plastic coating. Although the paper fibre is recyclable the plastic coating is polyethylene (PE), a petroleum based plastic coating, and most recycling facilities are unable to separate the polyethylene shell from the paper thereby polluting the processSee update 2 June 2017. The PE is used to waterproof the board and weld the joins together. Cups that could go to recycling are rejected due to the lack of labelling standards and contamination caused by food and drink also deters most paper mills from accepting single use cups for recycling. The PE coating also causes the process of biodegrading to slow dramatically.

In 2006 the USA cut down over 6.5 million trees to make 16 billion paper cups, using 52,996 mega-litres of water and resulting in 114,759 tonnes of waste.[2] The PE coating used on these cups is also listed as a suspected human carcinogen.[3]

The good news is that there is a more environmentally friendly solution available than PE coated cups.

This option involves the use of polylactic acid (PLA) to coat the board. PLA is a plastic made from plants and is ultimately a fermentation product which reduces dependence on non renewable resources. PLA has a CO2 footprint 75% less than conventional plastics – even if it ends up in landfill. To create PLA, you need pure Lactic Acid (LA). LA is fermented from a carbohydrate source, converted to lactide, and polymerised. The most economically viable carbohydrate raw materials today are corn and cassava, but theoretically, PLA can be made from any high sugar plants. It does not stop at the cups as PLA is also used to make the lids for the cups thereby allowing for a more environmentally friendly solution that is both compostable and recyclable.

According to The Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) website[4] biodegradable and compostable plastic material produced in this way must comply with Australian Standard AS4736‐2006. This standard provides assessment criteria for plastic materials that are to be biodegraded in municipal and industrial aerobic composting facilities. This Australian standard is similar to the widely known European EN 13432 standard, but has an additional requirement of a worm test. In order to comply with the AS 4736‐2006, plastic materials need to meet the following requirements:

  • minimum of 90% biodegradation of plastic materials within 180 days in compost
  • minimum of 90% of plastic materials should disintegrate into less than 2mm pieces in compost within 12 weeks
  • no toxic effect of the resulting compost on plants and earthworms.
  • hazardous substances such as heavy metals should not be present above the maximum allowed levels
  • plastic materials should contain more than 50% organic materials.

Aerobic decomposition is the most common form of composting seen in commercial operations although anaerobic, if properly managed, may be beneficial at sites where pests and vermin are seen as a major issue, or where input materials are unbalanced. Zero Waste SA[5] explains that home composting of PLA items such as plates, cups and utensils may not work as your home compost may not reach temperatures high enough and for long enough to break them down. Instead they state that it is better for them to be placed in your kerbside green organics bin and sent to a commercial composter, which is perfectly fine if you live in South Australia as they are currently the only Australian state or territory that provide this service[6].

PLA BioCup Biodegradation in a compost

PLA BioCup Biodegradation in a compostPhoto: Photo courtesy of BioPak

The Australian manufacturer of these cups, BioPak,[7] advises that the paper board is currently sourced from PEFC>[8] plantations as the FSC[9] paper that has been trialled does not currently produce “acceptable quality cups”. For those that are unaware, the PEFC and the FSC are two of the largest international forest certification programs which address the many types of forests and tenures around the world. Of the two PEFC is the largest certification framework in terms of forest area, with approximately two-thirds of the total certified area. The FSC program is the fastest growing.[10]

When asked if BioPak use, or have plans to use, recycled source material for their cups Richard Fine, the Founder of BioPak, replied that the option of 24% recycled content is available for customers however it is more costly than virgin paper and the market is unwilling to pay the price. Additionally when asked about the uptake of BioCups Richard pointed out that the majority of customers were happy to go with the PLA coated cup but they drew the line at the investment of an extra $0.03 cents for a PLA lid and stayed with the Polystyrene (PS) lids. PS lids, with the resin code 6, are recyclable however they are usually left attached to the cups and end up in landfill.


BioPak ProductsPhoto: Photo courtesy of BioPak

How to increase participation in compostable and/or recyclable paper cups?

Getting people to participate in a more ecologically aware project is something I often ponder when reading of new and better ways that help us manage a fair ecological balance. I believe the answer is simple and that answer is to legislate the change. If it is an ecologically better way to do something as in using Rechargeable batteries over single use ones, LED lights over mercury contaminated compact fluorescent bulbs or, as in the subject of this post, PLA coated cups and PLA lids over PE and PS tainted cups and lids then I believe we should take the old way out of the market and then there will be no choice as to whether to participate or not.

Another way, and possibly a quicker way, is to include coffee cups and their lids in the cash for containers program. This way it would encourage people to return the items to an appropriate place and would allow the quantities that are returned to increase making it more viable for companies to get involved in recycling and/or composting them.

The Kritic has approached both the Cash For Containers program and Senator Lee Rhiannon with my suggestion and at the time of publishing the only response I have received is that it has been forwarded on to Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who is the Greens spokesperson responsible for container deposit legislation. I will update when, and if, I receive a response form Senator Whish-Wilson.


28 Oct 2013
“Thanks for your suggestion – they are certainly a problem. However, we are still fighting uphill to get just drink containers subject to a deposit. To introduce a new item will simply set us back politically (introducing new potential opponents) and require further cost benefit research by governments – so that the proposed decision date on a CDS of 5 December 2013 does not eventuate or is negative. So maybe when a full scale CDS is operating we can move onto next items (including other containers if reverse vending machines can absorb them).” – Jeff Angel, Executive Director, Total Environment Centre

2 June 2017
Disposable cups are in fact recyclable and the lids most definitely are as well. Some recyclers say they will not accept paper cups as they are unable to separate the plastic from the paper fibres, yet these very same companies accept paper milk and juice cartons which are made from the exact same components as coffee cups – plastic coated paper board. There are 45 councils across Australia that have confirmed in writing that they accept paper cups for recycling.[11]
However these days keep cups are definitely the way to go as they will save on all the pulp required to make them, not to mention the water!

[1] The University of Queensland – Sustainability Office – Coffee Cups Document
[2] “Paper Cups = Unsustainable Consumption”.
[3] “Adverse Health Effects of Plastics”
[4] The Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) website
[5] Zero Waste SA
[6] Zero Waste SA Green Bin Service
[7] BioPak
[8] Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)
[9] Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
[10] Wikipedia – Certified Wood Programs
[11] The war on waste should be the battle to recycle


  1. Alison Maltby said:
    26 October 1:35 pm

    I had no idea that the coffee cups I use everyday could not be recycled. I would often keep mu cups throughout the day to place them in my recycling bin on return to my home.

    I will keep and eye out in future for these BioCups and ask the many coffee places I use why they do not have them available.

    I like your idea of having them included in the Cash for Containers program,

  2. Tee Kay said:
    26 October 1:40 pm

    I too keep my coffee cups, and other materials from take-outs with me until the end of the day. My theory is that is they see these items coming through and in quantity then perhaps they will be inclined to find a better solution than ejecting the to the landfill pile.

    As always Alison – Thanks for your comment.