Can we do anything useful with the millions of disposable coffee cups we waste every day?


If you’ve ever felt a pang of guilt while sipping hot coffee from a to-go mug, you’re not alone.

Although reusable cups have been around for a while, data suggests that many Australians are still looking for the disposable option.

Australians consume around 2.7 million cups of coffee a day, the vast majority of which end up in landfill, according to Sustainability Victoria.

That’s why Melbourne engineer Yanni Bouras tested ways to turn old coffee cups into something useful.

“As a structural engineer, there are two things I love, coffee and concrete,” he said.

Yanni Bouras hopes his innovation can be used for things like construction or trails.(ABC News: Kate Ashton)

The Victoria University (VU) engineering professor and his colleagues looked at different waste materials that can be used in a concrete mix.

“One day we were having coffee at the cafe here at VU and we kind of looked at the coffee cups and thought, ‘Why not give it a try? “”, Did he declare.

The cups are ground and mixed to replace some of the sand that goes into a typical concrete mix.

A man using a cement mixer.
Dr. Bouras and his team are working on new ways to make concrete.(ABC News: Kate Ashton)

So far, tests have shown that the material is weaker than standard concrete but has a higher thermal performance.

This means it could be useful for non-structural purposes, like sidewalks or even insulation.

If 10% of the sand were replaced with take-out coffee cups, there could be up to 700 used coffee cups per cubic meter of concrete.

“We need to find ways to build greener and more sustainably, so solutions like this are very important,” Dr Bouras said.

Industry is reorienting to reduce dependence on single-use packaging

As people like Dr. Bouras explore new ways to recycle coffee cup waste, many individual companies are scrambling to reduce their consumption.

Christian Sullivan McNeill is co-owner of a café in Brunswick, north Melbourne, which recently made some changes to try to minimize plastic waste.

“The changes weren’t big on their own, but we just needed a little guidance on what changes to make,” he said.

Mr. Sullivan McNeill’s cafe now uses cornstarch coffee cup lids, which are fully home compostable.

They have also moved away from straws and plastic cutlery.

“It wasn’t until we were able to get advice that we realized there are more sustainable products out there, especially with our lids,” he said.

Barista hand pouring a latte with pattern.
Cafe owners say the last two years of the pandemic have halted the switch to reusable cups.(ABC News: Alkira Reinfrank )

In her role as coordinator of Plastic Free Places for Victoria, Birte Moliere meets with businesses, such as Mr Sullivan McNeill’s cafe, to review the plastic products they use and advise on what they can eliminate or replace. .

“We have a lot of businesses that are very confused right now about what they’re allowed to use, what they’re not allowed to use, and what’s the most sustainable option for them,” he said. she declared.

She said it was encouraging to see how many companies were willing to adopt more sustainable packaging options, and they often found there was little or no difference in price.

Victoria moves closer to banning single-use plastics

From February 2023, Victoria will introduce a ban on single-use plastics.

The ban will include polystyrene wrappers, plastic straws, cutlery, plates and drink stirrers, but the proposed rules will not yet eliminate take-out coffee cups or lids.

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War on Waste: What a tram full of coffee cups reveals about our recycling habits

The government is urging businesses to reduce inventory and switch to other items before the ban takes effect.

The message that Ms. Molière wants to convey is that reusable options are always the most sustainable.

She said that while finding new second uses, like concrete coffee mugs, was a start, it wasn’t a perfect solution.

Ms Molière said there needed to be more focus on the “circular economy”, where materials were reused for a period of time.

A cup to keep with a wooden lid and a white plastic disposable coffee cup are placed side by side on a wooden table.
Conservationists say choosing a sippy cup over a disposable cup is the best way to solve the problem.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)

The same could be said for the shift to better alternatives, like compostable bioplastics, which use less energy to produce and break down, but ultimately remain a single-use product.

“For coffee mugs, the easiest and best thing is to just go for reusables,” she said.

As well as changing the products in their cafe, Mr Sullivan McNeill said they were also working to encourage customers to bring their own reusable cup or forgo a plastic lid.

He said people were still picking up the habit of bringing their reusable cups after they were hit in the past two years by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What we were doing [with reusable cups] pre-COVID, we’re not quite there yet. But it’s slowly coming back, I guess,” he said.

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