compost

Goodbye to the take-away cup

Back in April 2017 I was given a “completely compostable” disposable cup in order to try some batch brew. But how “compostable” is “completely compostable” really? It needed to be tested! And so, once it was empty, the cup was placed into a worm composting bin and left to see how long it took to compost.

Each week I took a photograph of the cup to see how it was composting, the results of which were made into the film below. How long did it take? You can watch the film or scroll past to find out more:

Did it compost?

110 weeks! That is more than two years in the worm bin. Is that how long you thought it would take? When things are marked “compostable”, even when they are marked with a regulatory compostable mark like EN13432 or ASTM6400, this usually means the item is compostable only in an industrial setting. Industrial composting facilities are kept at 58C, very far from the conditions found in a London based worm bin (more details here) or indeed from most people’s idea of a compost bin.

The OK Vincotte label is for items that are supposed to be genuinely “home” compostable. Will this bag from Amoret coffee compost in the worm bin? It is in there now but as we are in winter, the worms have slowed down to such an extent that it would not be fair to start a new #willitcompost just yet.

What about defining labels for a genuine “home” composting environment? The problem here is that a worm composting bin in London will be very different from a more conventional compost heap in a tropical country. How can you define one set of conditions that are universally applicable? One label that tries is “OK Vincotte” but it seems quite rare and indeed I have only seen this once ‘in the wild’: on bags of Amoret roasted coffee (see picture). Have you spotted them anywhere else?

The conclusion from all this? We all need to think about how we each can live more simply and sustainably. Perhaps a re-usable cup will be part of the way that you do this. (Some of them are reviewed by Brian’s coffeespot linked here). Or maybe you’ll opt to drink your coffee to-stay. Whatever else it involves though, it can’t be by putting each “compostable” take-away coffee cup we consume in a worm composting bin in London or imagining that they will somehow compost in a landfill!

Do let me know what you are doing to address the issues of your own coffee waste either in the comments below, on Twitter or over on Facebook. I look forward to continuing the discussion there.

Tales from the worm bin

the cup before the worm bin

How it all began.
“Completely compostable”
But how compostable is it?

It is hard to believe but it was one year ago this week that the composting experiment that became #willitcompost started. The idea was to test just how “compostable” a coffee cup described as “completely compostable” really was. The problem is that “compostable” has a legal definition but it is not one that you or I may immediately recognise. Legally for a take-away coffee cup to be described as compostable it has to completely disappear within 6 months in an industrial composting facility. Industrial composting is quite different from home composting. In the former, the temperature is kept at (58±2)ºC while in my composting worm bin, it can get very cold indeed.

As has been written about elsewhere, in the absence of better industrial composting facilities, there is very little virtue involved by swapping a disposable cup for a compostable one, to combat the problem of waste it would be far better to remember your re-usable. However, what if you had a composting bin at home? How long would it take the cup to compost? And even, would it compost?

So every week for the past 52 weeks, I have posted a photo of the cup, composting away, in the worm bin. It seems clear that although it will eventually compost, more than 52 weeks is a long time to wait and not practical if you are drinking multiple take-away coffees.

willitcompost

51 weeks later, the lining and part of the rim of the cup are still in the worm bin. Clearly the worms have better things to eat.

In the meanwhile, other questions have been raised. What about other coffee packaging such as the bags for roasted coffee beans? What about the compostable “glasses”? Can anything be done to speed up the composting of the cup?

Last month, the opportunity came to start a new experiment testing these questions. A compostable coffee roasting bag from Amoret Coffee (which was reviewed on Bean Thinking here) was placed in the second shelf of the worm bin together with a cup, a compostable “glass” and a section of food packaging. The cup and the ‘glass’ were cut in half before being placed in the worm bin. One half of each was left as it was but the other half was soaked in (initially boiling) water for 12 hours. The idea of this was that part of the problem that has slowed the composting of the original cup was the lining that is designed to hold hot liquids without leaking. If we could somehow weaken that lining before placing it in the worm bin, perhaps the composting process would be accelerated?

talesfromthewormbin

A roasted coffee bag, a cup (split in two, see main text), a compostable glass and some food packaging, but will they compost?

Starting in late March provides the best chance of a quick composting process due to a particular aspect of worm behaviour. Although the composting worms will continue to eat the waste put into the composting bin throughout the winter, they do slow down quite a lot. If you have a worm bin, you may notice that the amount of waste that you can put into the bin decreases during the winter months. On the other hand, as the weather improves, the worms seem to eat everything very quickly so, to provide the best conditions for composting, the weather has to be reliably warm (or at least, not freezing).

Rather than once a week, updates will be approximately once per month both on social media and in the Bean Thinking newsletter. So keep your eyes on #talesfromthewormbin on twitter or subscribe to the newsletter. Do we really take our environmental responsibility seriously by using compostable packaging or, ultimately, is a more radical approach to waste, single use packaging and consumerism necessary?

How compostable is compostable?

the cup before the worm bin

“Completely compostable”
But how compostable is it?

So we’re trying to do our bit for the environment and ensure that we always get a compostable cup for our take-away coffee. But have you ever stopped to wonder, just how compostable is compostable?

It is a sad fact that most items that are described as ‘compostable’ do not compost as you or I may expect. Throw a ‘compostable’ cup in a compost bin (or wormery) and you may be surprised at how long it takes to disappear. The reason is that the legal definition of compostable generally refers to industrial composting conditions. In contrast to the worm bin, or the home-compost heap, an industrial composting facility is kept at (58±2)ºC. In these conditions, something defined as ‘compostable’ by the EU regulation EN 13432 or the US based ASTM D6400 needs to have completely disappeared within 6 months but have 90% disintegrated to fragments smaller than 2mm by 12 weeks.

Perhaps it is not hard to see why the legal criteria are defined this way. How would you define common criteria for home composting? Although there is a (Belgian led) certification called “OK compost” by Vinçotte, there are as yet no widely agreed definitions for home composting. However, some companies do try to seek out truly home-compostable packaging. In the case of coffee specifically, one coffee roaster trying to keep their environmental impact to a minimum is the Nottingham based Roasting House. Although most of their packaging is paper, (recycled and recyclable), they needed something less permeable for transporting pre-ground coffee by post. Apparently this took quite a search as many bags that said they were home-compostable turned out not to be. Eventually however they chose Natureflex, a packaging that provided a good moisture and air barrier to protect the coffee but that also broke down in a home composting environment.

But how quickly would it disappear in a worm-composter? On the 6th May 2017 my coffee from Roasting House arrived double packed. First in a Natureflex compostable bag and then in the standard (recyclable) paper bag/envelope. It was ready to be placed in the worm bin on the 8th of May 2017.

See the video below for how long it took to be eaten by the worms:

Seventeen weeks later, on 4th September, it was time to declare the bag composted. After 17 weeks, the bag had started to become indistinguishable from other items in the worm bin (such as garlic skin) and when I picked up what bits seemed to remain, they quickly disintegrated in my hand. It seemed time to declare it over for the bag. A truly home-compostable bag, but how does it compare to the ‘OK Compost’ label of Vinçotte.

Coffee bag genuinely home compostable

How it started.
The Roasting House bag before it went into the worm composter.

The definition used by Vinçotte is not for a worm-composting bin but a standard home-compost heap. Ignoring this fact for the time being, the certification requires that a compostable item disintegrates to pieces less than 2mm within 26 weeks and has fully gone within 365 days when held (in a compost bin) between 20-30ºC. Within these criteria, the packaging from Roasting House is certainly “home compostable” as determined by the worms. Although there were bits of greater than 2mm after 17 weeks, just handling them reduced their size to bits in the mm range. And that was only after 17 weeks, well within the 26 specified by the criteria used by Vinçotte.

So now we’re just waiting for the coffee cup. That went into the worm bin on the 20th April 2017 and is still going, 21 weeks later. Will it be home-compostable? Will the lining that’s needed to keep the coffee from leaking out prevent the worms from breaking it down? You’ll find out here! Make sure you sign up to the BeanThinking newsletter or follow @thinking_bean on Twitter or Facebook to be one of the first to find out when the coffee cup has finally gone.

In the meanwhile, if you’re looking for an environmental solution to your take-away coffee cup habit, it is worth investing in a re-usable cup. Most councils at the moment do not provide industrial composting facilities. Moreover, it is not safe to assume that compostable items will eventually compost in a landfill as modern landfills are water-tight and air-tight. As they say here, the modern land fill is not designed to mulch as much as to mummify. So,if you want to avoid green-washing, you may want to invest in a re-usable cup, for a review of these see Brian’s coffee spot here.