In the last few years the Dutch government has selected sustainability as one of the cornerstones of it policy. This commitment is also reflected in their increased use of biobased products, which are wholly or partly derived from renewable resources i.e. plants. Following on from this, the government decided to take action against the use of non-biodegradable plastic cups, which are still commonly used in the workplace. Meanwhile, various companies and governments have already opted for the large-scale purchasing of sustainable types of hot (beverage) cups. The Dutch government did not lag behind and decided to purchase paper cups with a polylactic acid (PLA) coating. PLA is a biobased and compostable plastic. Until 2017, these PLA cups were nevertheless processed in a waste energy plant, in other words incinerated. For this reason, the government’s purchasers requested Wageningen Food & Biobased Research and TNO to carry out an environmental analysis. In this study, two sustainable end-of-life routes, after separate collection of the used PLA cups, were compared: recycling or digestion plus composting. The report has revealed that recycled cups have a better environmental performance.
(Unfortunately only available in Dutch).
The central focus of this research was on the environmental impact of these two processing routes, as alternatives to incineration, and the most sustainable option for ‘closing the loop’ of biobased coffee cups. Paper cups can’t typically be recycled amongst general paper waste due to their leak-resistant PLA coating. The paper cups can, however, be recycled by separating the coating from the paper fibre. The analysis has shown that up to 89% of the collected cups are made from high quality paper and therefore are very suitable to recycle. The discarded cups can be converted into toilet paper and tissues in a paper factory. The other end-of-life route is the digestion of the cups to create biogas -and subsequently produce valuable compost of the digestate.
In order to provide insight into the total environmental effects of both end-of-life routes, scientists have calculated the environmental costs of land use, pesticides, CO2-emissions and pollutants. Based on the overall results, recycled cups were shown to have a better environmental performance. The research has also revealed that through recycling the use of primary pulp can be prevented. This avoided use of primary pulp can lead to substantial saving of environmental costs for the cultivation of trees.
The digestion route can, however, also be applied to gain environmental benefits. When only taking the climate change effect (CO2 emissions) into account, the digestion route performs even better than recycling as digestion avoids the combustion of natural gas and, therefore, CO2 emissions.
Recycling Route by‘ Collect A Cup’
As specialists of biobased (hot) cups, we consider it very important to offer the most sustainable end-of-life possibilities. Therefore, we have chosen to offer a flexible service that provides regular collection of discarded coffee cups called “Collect A Cup” in the Netherlands. Ultimately, in cooperation with the Dutch Renewi and paper factory WEPA, our coffee cups can be recycled into new paper and cardboard. For the success of this concept, this choice and particular analysis of the Dutch government have been decisive. It is expected that the purchasing power of the government will contribute to desired further growth of use of PLA coated hot cups, which will enable the expansion of environmentally friendlier recycling systems.
The research was financed by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy.