Thursday, 15 March 2018

100% Recyclable is still 60% garbage

There’s a petition for Starbucks cups to be 100% recyclable (something they had promised for 2015) but I want you to know what you’re asking for if you sign it.

1. What do you mean by 100% recyclable?
Shouldn’t it mean every bit of the cup is you know, 100% recyclable?  I'm not sure that’s a promise Starbucks can keep, because Starbucks doesn’t control world recycling markets.  Lots of things are theoretically recyclable (and proudly labelled so by manufacturers) but that doesn’t mean it’s actually happening in the real world.  To-go cups are already (sorta) ‘recyclable’ right now, but only 1% actually are worldwide. Right now the recycling world is in a spin because China has stopped accepting much of the world's waste as of this January (and they bought 90% of BC's recycled paper.)

What are cups made of now and what’s happening to them?
Most cups are a paper core lined with a thin polyethylene film.  The lids are usually #6, polystyrene, same family as Styrofoam.  There are health concerns about the use of polystyrene for food packaging although the FDA has ruled it’s safe. The sleeves are paper (100% recyclable, and you’ve totally been making sure they don’t go in the trash, right?)   

In Vancouver, coffee cups can go in the blue bin at home, and either in container or paper recycling in commercial and public buildings.  As far as I can find out, only the paper is being reclaimed. Yup, soggy coffee and lipstick stained paper pulp.  Cups cost more to recycle than other paper products because the lining have to be separated from the paper. In most places around the world, to-go cups are garbage because recycling facilities can't process them.

As far as I can find out, the plastic cup lining is almost certainly being landfilled, but if you think of a use for polyethylene laced with coffee grounds and paper fibre, you let me know. There's also not a strong market for #6 plastic (the lids) but they can go in the blue bin as well.  (Remember a recycler can and will landfill any load that isn’t going to make money.  Recycling is a business, not a public service.)

What are the new cups going to be made of?
Is it plastic-free?  That would be nice, but a paper-only cup isn’t going to hold water.  

How many times must it be recycled to meet our definition of 100% recyclable?  Only metal and glass recycle endlessly; paper and plastic downcycle (lose quality with each transformation).  Paper can only go through the recycling process a maximum of 7 times, and I’m guessing soggy coffee paper won’t last that many loops.  

Plastic is even less of a recycling success: the amount of new plastic produced each year outweighs all the humans on Earth, only 9% is getting recycled and most plastic that touches food is brand new virgin plastic for health and safety reasons.  I am extremely skeptical that a 100% recycable and affordable cup is even possible.  Don't even get me started on compostable plastic....

It seems that a 100% recyclable cup just means a new cup design where the lining is only lightly attached to the paper fibre, and so separates more easily in recycling machinery.  

Who is responsible?
If you drop a cup in Starbucks’ recycling, they have to pay a waste hauler to remove it.  Guess what?  It’s probably just going to landfill, but at least Starbucks has to pay for it. 

 If people leave the premises and put it in trash can on the street corner, or drop it on the ground, the city has to pay for removal.  City of Vancouver estimates they spend more than $2.5 million a year cleaning up coffee cups.  If you put it in your blue bin, supposedly Starbucks is paying.  That’s part of the new Extended Producer Responsibility program in BC.  Every company that imports or manufactures goods has to pay an industry fee which funds RecycleBC.

100% recyclable STILL doesn’t mean every cup is going to make it to recycling, and taxpayers are still going to have to pay for that, not Starbucks.  

My biggest concern is that people tend to use more resources when they believe they are recyclable.
A recyclable cup lets Starbucks off the hook (hey we changed our cup, not our fault if people litter!), and consumers as well (these cups are recyclable so I don't have to worry about bringing my own!)

Is this the best solution? 
The other part of Starbucks’ promise is to increase the use of reusable cups by 25%.  Now that I can get behind. 
So if you care enough to sign the petition, do you care enough to ask for a ceramic cup if you’re staying in the café?  To throw your travel mug in your car or your desk at work?  You don’t have to be perfect but every little bit helps.  Think of all the resources that go into logging trees, fracking the natural gas for the plastic, bleaching the paper pulp, forming the cups, shipping them to cafes, collecting recycling, driving it to the depot,  transforming it, making a new product, and shipping it somewhere else… Are we really that attached to drinking coffee from paper cups with a useful life of like…an hour?  Recycling is only ever a last-resort solution.

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