Sunday, October 18, 2009

Greenwashing: "compostable" coffee cups

Mmm Sunday coffee, how I ADORE my fair trade, organic moccaccino from JustUs! a local coffee roasting company/cafe. I started drinking coffee out of necessity while in grad school; studying until midnight on a Friday night in a local coffee shop away from all the distractions in my apartment. If I was going to sit there for hours, I better drink something, and the most non-coffee/coffee order was a chocolate laden espresso heaven. YUM. Of course, they are ridiculously expensive so I gradually moved to daily cup of coffee, home ground and french pressed with a twice a week "fancy" coffee allowance.

JustUs! is a fantastic company, extremely community oriented and firmly entrenched in the fair trade and organic coffee/coffee accessory industry. The owners began importing fair trade beans by driving themselves down to Mexico, purchasing directly from the farmers and roasting them here in Nova Scotia. They now sell fair trade organic sugar, chocolate, teas and serve only local vegan/organic food.

When we come to drink coffee here (like we are today!) we usually order our coffees for here, even if it's only to drink in five minutes. According to "Sustainable is Sexy" 23 BILLION coffee cups will be used in 2010... most created by cutting down precious trees (9.4 million to be exact) and dumping them in the landfill. There is nothing more frustrating than walking into a coffee shop and seeing every single consumer sitting down, sipping their coffee out of a "to-go" container. I don't need my coffee to be the cause of felling more trees, using more water and spewing out more carbon. I get my coffee for here.

That being said, there are many times where I would like to drink my coffee while on the go, and a cup just won't cut it. This brings me to the "compostable" cup issue. JustUs! has been touting a "compostable" coffee cup for the past several months. They used to have a sign (no longer up), their staff pushes the cup as such and I've seen them several times dumping their compost bin filled with cups for city pick up. The hitch- these cups aren't "really" biodegradable.

This is the issue with supposedly biodegradable single use products, many of them cannot be processed in a backyard compost nor are they accepted by most municipal composting facilities. So... they all get tossed into the landfill. The liner is most likely made from bioplastic such as a corn-based polymer which requires those special processing facilities. According to Climate Change Corp, only 1% of bioplastics in Europe and the US were actually composted, the rest were sent to the landfill to release toxic methane gases. We also need to consider the corn-soy issue: by supporting bio-corn/soy plastics we are also supporting a ridiculous toxic industry where monocultures of genetically engineered corn/soy are grown using polluting pesticides and machinery.

Biodegradable/compostable products will NOT break down buried under piles of plastic bags without oxygen or sunlight... i.e. in the landfill.

When I asked for a "to-go" cup several months ago and voiced my guilt of getting it "to-go" the worker announced: "Oh, but these are compostable- so no worries!". To which I replied: "Yes, but are they compostable in HRM?" and he responded with a sheepish "no". Seriously? I do NOT need to be misled about the environmental choices that I make. How many other coffee drinkers think that they don't have to invest in a reusable mug as the compostable cup will do just fine?

Although the idea is fantastic, unfortunately Halifax's organics system definitely does NOT accept these (or any other single use "biodegradable" product) cups. For a short period of time several local businesses made a (completely impractical) decision to simply ignore this fact and to serve their coffee in bio-plastic, bio-containers (Smiling Goat Cafe and Pete's Frootique) in the "hopes" that the system will cave under the pressure. Right. Instead they misled hundreds of consumers into thinking they were making an enviro-choice while all the while continuing to add to our ever-increasing landfills. At the same time these companies could have been lobbying WITH it's consumers, educating their community and rallying petitions and letters to encourage HRM to improve it's recycling and composting facilities.

I finally decided to write JustUs! to voice my disappointment on their obvious "greenwashing" of their cups. The response although somewhat hopeful was also a disappointment. I'd like to point out that it seems unlikely that the sales manager had no idea about HRM's policy when the staff at the cafes informed me about (with their: "ya we just had a meeting about that") at least six months ago...

Thank you very much for your letter. I was recently made aware that the HRM does not actually compost coffee cups, but that the VWM in the Valley does. We have been talking about the possibility of pulling the cups as part of a petition campaign to HRM. Firstly though, I will contact the proper authority at HRM on this matter and determine the appropriate steps from there. I appreciate your interest in the issue and will let you know how things unfold.

I eagerly await to hear about how they are shipping the cups to the "Valley" (Annapolis Valley, about two hours away from Halifax). In the spirit of transparency, however, I would prefer if JustUs! would no longer advertise their cups as being compostable when they are in fact NOT (in HRM) and instead advocate for change through petitions, information sessions and rallies. I'm not sure how pulling cups that are already being sent to the landfill will result in a petition campaign against HRM... In the mean time, I get my coffee for here, or in my reusable mug.

My take home message: instead of continuing our habits in this disposable life, encouraging consumers to move toward reusable lifestyle is a more sustainable and environmental goal. I will choose glass, paper or plastic I know is accepted over "biodegradable" products that will simply end up in the landfill.


Article and photos copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. Thanks for the education. I don't drink much coffee anymore, but when I do I use the ceramic mugs or my to-go mug, which is actually starting to wear out.

    I would not of been aware of all these important details if not for your blog. Keep up the good work.

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. I manage to almost always drink coffee out of non-disposable mugs, since, generally, if I'm not planning on hanging out in a coffee shop, I'd rather drink my coffee much more cheaply at home...where I've recently been grinding up beans from "compostable" bags...which I've then been ripping up (per the directions on the bags) and throwing in the compost...and now I'm hoping they don't turn out to be like the cups you're describing....

    Hmmmm...that last paragraph sounds a bit self-righteous and greener-than-thou...should I mention the packaging the take-out food I eat so much of comes in? Probably best not to...forget I said anything...

  3. Interesting . . . Our city does compost. It even picks up food waste, pizza boxes, and this supposedly compostable stuff. We generally avoid all that but it does occasionally come into our home. I'll need to investigate whether our industrial composting will compost this stuff.

  4. Great job on the investigative blog. Very informative. I love my coffee. For my bday this year I got a new travel mug(this one doesn't spill) and a water bottle. I love them and feel good about my greeness all at the same time.

  5. Oh gods it just makes you dispair doesnt it? I tend not to drink at these places, mainly because of the cost, so if I do its a treat and I am damn well sitting down!

    But misleading people is just wrong.

    As for sustainability is sexy - WTF? Why do we have this need to make everything sexy?! ARGH!!!!


  6. *groan* This sort of thing makes me want to curl up in a corner and refuse to come out...

    How are people supposed to make the *right* decisions? It does nothing to promote truth in advertising with all this greenwashing business....


    I think I'll just stay home and put the kettle on....*grin*

    Great always, a reminder to question, question, question....


  7. We struggled with this issue while planning our DIY wedding reception. We did end up using compostable cups, plates and flatware from our hippie grocery, which agreed to take all our compost after the party was over. My hope, since they took it, is that they actually do have access to the proper composting technique. Fingers crossed.

  8. I am reading your post while sitting at a local coffee shop drinking out of a real cup. I so don't understand why those around me don't do the same. Coffee tastes better out of a coffee cup ;-) I carry my reusable coffee mug with me for occassions when I do stop for coffee-to-go. I am glad that you wrote them and brought this to their attention!

  9. yes ugh the conflict over compostable products. for example - biodegradable dog waste bags just don't make sense unless you do your own backyard composting or live in a city with a compost system that allows animal waste. my boyfriend bought them once until i was like, there is no point, they are just going to go in the regular garbage and never break down, so why spend lots of $ on them when we can reuse plastic shopping bags instead.

  10. hi,

    i put a link to your blog on my blogroll, i hope that's okay.. let me know if it isn't :)



  11. Fantastic article! A "compostable" label certainly doesn't tell a product's full story. Personally, I've found that most waste management companies are highly interested in adopting systems that will allow for these products to be truly composted. At the same time, the food packaging industry seems to view these compostable products as a big money maker, and I think we'll be seeing more and more of them in the near future. To solve the issues you pointed out in this article, I believe it's going to come down to consumers and local governments putting pressure on waste facilities to make these products truly compostable.

    To Jen's comment, we chose "sexy" because all the other good words were taken ;).

    Keep up the great work!

    Director, Sustainability Is Sexy

  12. That's good information, Nicko. Thanks for commenting. This has been a very helpful discussion.

    Bob Weisenberg

  13. wow- so many fantastic comments!

    Bob: Thanks for visiting! :)

    Dr. Jay: LOL, so fun! I think the trick on what your system or compost will accept is the corn-bio plastic aspect of it all. Trust me, I am definitely not an "eco-saint".

    Green Bean: Sounds like you have a similar system. Our city accepts boxboard, food etc (although I wonder about the chemical dyes used for the inks on the cereal type boxes... do they go in the soil as well?). The part of coffee cups that seems to be the issue is the corn-bioplastic.

    Junebug: yay new travel mug!!! I have to admit, it took a while to get used to drinking out of mine... coffee just seems to taste better out of a ceramic cup!

    Jen: yes yes- I totally am not a fan of "greenwashing" it's my soap box, I hate it. I do agree about the sexy part- although I think that it's a clever marketing angle...

    Mel: that's IT exactly- right choices are so diffciult to make. Speaking of kettle- tea would be yummy right now!

    Vegan: Most likely- I mean they wouldn't have accepted it if they didn't. that is so cool that you found someone too, I was just reading about a couple who were having some trouble with that...

    OverCoffee: sometimes I have this tiny little urge to approach people and ask why they have a disposable cup... kinda like i feel like tapping on people's car windows and asking them to stop idling. But then i'd be the crazy lady... so i don't.. lol. writing a letter was a step.

    Julia: Ohh! that sucks. I like your solution though, it at least helps you reuse a plastic bag.

    Emma: yay! thank you :) I'm planning on featuring your space tonight!

    Nicko: like Bob said- thanks for stopping by and the perspective! I agree, it would make more sense for the local businesses to have lobbied and petitioned with citizens for this service. Other systems in Nova Scotia supposedly have this capability, why doesn't the largest centre in NS??

    I think what this has taught me was that a letter to JustUs! perhaps was not enough.... I think that I could easily put together a petition and pass them out at local businesses for their customers to endorse and send off to HRM's organics systems and the MLA.... WHat do you think?

  14. I am so glad that we have started calling out people who "greewash". While I am happy that people are starting to more concerned about green v/s regular old crap, it is sad that we have to do (you have to do:) major investigating into these companies. One step forward, one step back, one step forward...and then we Cha Cha...

    Thanks for the help with the banner situation..go check it out! (took me awhile)

  15. Important! Thank you so much for opening this discussion. I wonder how much of the surface of the earth a single layer of 23 billion coffee cups would cover. Any mathematicians handy with a calculator out there?

  16. At our office we're using compostable cups for our holiday party cold beverages. They actually are a pretty addition to the serving tables, being clear with a green stripe design (actually says "green stripe" inside the stripe) which tells our customer guests that we care about the environment. We used these for a 4th of July business event and got positive feedback from our guests - also got new referrals because of our stand on recycling! Different cups sizes and pack amounts are at at a good price.

  17. Hi Ecoyogini,
    I don't agree with you. Compostable cups are compostable in commercial facilities in fact here in Victoria the cups are picked up from our shops and delivered back as soil. You also have to consider the fact that they of a much lesser environmental impact when produced than other styrofoan or conventional cups.*I any way is is still much better than other conventional paper cups that contain oil based liners, paper that is from non sustainable forest practices,paper that is whitened with chlorine bleach, bpas in the plastic liner.
    Just a few facts about regular paper cups:
    Because the majority of conventional paper cups are coated on the inside with Polyethylene (PE),or LDPE a petroleum based coating, the process of biodegrading is minimal if at all and these paper products in a landfill may not decompose, or may release methane if decomposed anaerobically. Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times worse than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Defense Fund
    • Polyethylene (LDPE) is non-renewable and non-compostable,non recyclable, making only landfill or incineration likely end of use disposal scenarios.
    • BPAS may leach into hot drinks ( BPA's or bisphenol A are known hormone disrupters… )
    • Regular Paper cups may consume more non-renewable resources like water, oil ,forests . ( not good for the environment)
    • Paper for its manufacturing may be used from non sustainable sources.
    • Solid Bleached Sulfate (SBS) is the regular paperboard used for regular paper cups.
    • higher carbon footprint ( higher Co2 emissions and water usage to produce them)
    • Commercial recycling cannot remove the glue in paper cups, making it impossible to recycle them.
    • Wax covering on paper cups exacerbates the problem, adding another irremovable layer to the cups.
    Lids for conventional paper cups are made of plastic which in turn is made of oil.

    Yes it is good to bring in your own mug but sometimes it is just not possible, also consider the water and soap you use when you have to clean your mug specially in places with water problems.( Dessert areas ) Have you considered what damage occurs when conventional mugs are manufactured and when those are thrown away, most of them have lead in them.

    So in the end compostable cups are still a much better option for now than most things out there.

    1. Hi Anonymous:
      thank you for the indepth comment.

      Actually, I know for a fact that in HRM the "compostable" cups are not composted. I have this knowledge from a direct interview with an HRM organics official.

      Therefore- advertising that they are "compostable" is misleading. Which was my beef. These companies KNEW that their cups were being tossed into the landfill, however they were misleading customers into thinking that in fact their coffee cups were being composted. Instead of spending the money (as they were expensive) these companies could have invested in more aggressive byom programs, or getting your coffee to stay.
      Further, each company of "compostable" cups makes theirs from different linings, some better than others.

      Finally- as it would happen- the companies in question stopped offering "compostable" coffee cups. Either because they were too expensive, or because HRM officials finally cracked down on them and told them to stop.

      So. Instead of focusing on another pseudo-disposable option, we really need to make the switch to a reusable lifestyle.

  18. Anonymous (Why is this person choosing not to identify himself or herself?), above, implies that the resource costs of manufacturing, using and eventually discarding reusable mugs, including the cost in water and soaps to wash them over their lifetime, is greater than the same cumulative costs of one-use cups.

    I have yet to see a scientific study showing that reusable mugs, over their lifetime, use more resources than disposable/compostable single use cups, use for use, disposal for disposal. It's a specious argument. I don't buy it.


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