compostability

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?

Coffee and the world

Welcome to the first post of 2018, Happy New Year! But before embracing 2018, perhaps let’s take a moment to remember those things that we discovered in 2017 that connect your coffee cup (or brewing device) with the physics of what occurs in the wider universe. Here are some of the highlights for me this year, if you want to share your highlight, please comment in the section below.

latte art, flat white art

A properly made latte. But what if you add hot espresso to the milk instead of the other way around?

1) Latte layering

In mid-December a study was published in Nature Communications that explored the complex, but elegant, physics involved in making lattes (ok, not quite by the technique that you would hopefully find in your neighbourhood café but keep with this…). When a hot, low density, liquid (espresso) was poured into a hot higher density liquid (milk) contained within a cold mug, the competition between the density gradients of the liquid (vertical) and the temperature gradient from the cup wall to the liquids (horizontal) produced multiple layers of varying coffee/milk concentration in the cup. Too late for a 2017 Daily Grind article, this looks to be too good an experiment to pass by, hopefully it will appear on the Daily Grind in early 2018.

 

science in a V60

Could this V60 mystery now be solved?

2) Bouncing drops

November 2017 saw research published about what happens when a cold droplet falls onto a hot liquid (think milk and coffee). The temperature difference causes currents to be established within the droplet (and in the main liquid) that in turn create air flows between the droplet and the liquid bath that prevent the droplet from merging with the bath. The research can explain why it is that you can sometimes see raindrops staying as spheres of water on the top of puddles. It may also explain a puzzling phenomenon that I have seen while brewing coffee in a V60.

 

Vortex rings get everywhere.

3) Vortex rings in coffee

June 2017 and it is again about adding milk to coffee (why do I drink coffee black?). When one liquid (such as milk) is dripped into another (such as coffee), it is very likely that you will observe the milk to form “vortex rings”. These rings are related to smoke rings and have, in the past, been proposed as an atomic model. This year however it was suggested that these vortex rings could form as a type of magnetic nanostructure. Mathematically impressive, beautiful, perhaps quite useful and mathematically similar to something you can find in your coffee.

 

bloom on a v60

How do craters form?

4) Crater shapes

April 2017. What happens while brewing a pour over? As you drip water onto a granular bed (or, in coffee terms, ground coffee in a V60 filter), each drop will create a crater. The size and shape of the crater will depend on the density of the granular bed (espresso puck or loose grounds in a filter) and the velocity of the falling drop. Fast frame photography revealed how the shape of the crater changed with time for different scenarios.

 

Coffee bag genuinely home compostable

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

5) A home experiment

Perhaps not quite in the theme of the other four stories but this is an experiment that you can do at home. Some have proposed compostable coffee cups as a more environmentally conscious alternative to ordinary, disposable, coffee cups. But how “compostable” are compostable cups and compostable packaging? Between May and September 2017, #howlongtocompost looked at how long it took the Natureflex packaging (used by the coffee roasting company Roasting House for their ground coffee) to compost in a worm composting bin. This one worked quite well. Within 17 weeks, it had been eaten by the worms. In comparison, the “completely compostable” take away coffee cup is still in the worm bin (although considerably degraded) 37 weeks after the start of the experiment. If you are interested, you can follow #willitcompost on twitter. Will it finally compost? I’ll leave you to place your bets but you may decide that a link to Brian’s coffee spot guide to re-usable cups will be helpful.

 

What will 2018 bring? Certainly there will be more composting experiments as I have a coffee bean bag from Amoret coffee, 3 different compostable cups and a compostable “glass” to try with the worms. But in terms of the science? We’ll have to wait. Meanwhile, if you have a coffee-science highlight from 2017, please do share it either here in the comments section, on Twitter or on Facebook. Happy New Year to you all.

 

 

 

 

 

Plastic, coffee and ethical consumerism

“[W]hile 30% of UK consumers claimed to espouse ethical standards only 3% of purchases examined reflected those standards”∗.

Earth from space, South America, coffee

The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Most of us are aware of the growing number of environmental problems facing our planet and many of us want to do something. The question is what? Take the packaging that we use for freshly-roasted coffee. It often comes in metallised plastic bags with aroma valves on the front. Is this packaging good for the environment, or for our coffee?

Many factors will influence our decisions as consumers. Even our ‘ethical’ decisions can be based on different arguments. One factor though is, hopefully, the insights gained from scientific studies on the environmental effects of different types of packaging. Today’s Daily Grind examines some of this science.

Types of coffee packaging available

When you order coffee from a roaster, or buy it at a supermarket, mostly it will arrive in a metallised plastic bag. Some companies will supply coffee in compostable ‘plastic’ packaging, or paper, but most bags are still made from ordinary plastic. Some, larger, coffee roasters supply their coffee in cans. Although these are 100% recyclable, the increased weight compared to plastic packaging and the limited re-usability of the cans mean that plastic packaging can be more environmentally friendly than canned coffee. This article is therefore only going to consider smaller roasters and the plastic vs paper debate.

The problems of packaging

It is helpful to clarify the environmental concerns with respect to packaging. For the case of paper vs plastic, three major areas of concern are:

  • Depletion of a limited resource, recycling and re-usability.
  • Carbon dioxide emissions – in the manufacture and transportation of packaging.
  • Degradability – in both landfill and as litter.

Recycling and the Limited Resource problem

air valve, plastic, environmental coffee packaging

Disposable products make up about 37% of plastics produced‡. Are we wasting limited supplies by wanting our coffee as fresh as possible?

Paper comes from wood but plastics are generally a by-product of the petroleum industry (5% of petroleum in the US is used to produce plastics). Perhaps you will say that not all plastics are made from petroleum by-products. It is true. “Compostable” plastics are typically manufactured from starch based products (corn etc). However other bio-degradable plastics are petroleum based. “Oxo-biodegradable” plastic is ‘ordinary’ plastic with a small amount of catalyst added to it during manufacture. The catalyst causes the plastic to break down more quickly than the conventional plastic without the additive. Typically oxo-biodegradable plastic will be manufactured to degrade after 18 months compared with many years for ‘ordinary’ plastic.

Both compostable and oxo-biodegradable plastic are sometimes called ‘biodegradable’, but there are crucial differences between the two. For the sake of this article, I’ll be comparing ‘ordinary’ plastic with ‘compostable’ plastic (conforming to EN 13432) and oxo-biodegradable plastic (regulation ASTM D6954).

So the first part of the question would be to ask if the coffee packaging is made from recycled material. Paper can clearly be made from recycled material as can ordinary plastic and oxo-biodegradable plastic. Compostable plastic cannot be recycled and so cannot have been made from recycled material.

The second part of the question is whether you can recycle the packaging after using it. Again, paper packaging can obviously be recycled (provided it is not lined with plastic). Although both ordinary and oxo-biodegradable plastic can, in principle, be recycled, the multilayered and metallised design of the coffee bag means that it is not normally recyclable. Some coffee roasters however have started using specially designed plastic packaging that can be recycled in normal recycling centers. It would be great if more followed suit.

Two questions for your coffee supplier: Are the bags used to package the coffee made from recycled material and are they recyclable?

Greenhouse Gas emissions and energy costs

paper bag roasted coffee

Is a paper bag necessarily better for the environment?

Perhaps it is greenhouse gas emissions that concern you and so want to choose an environmentally sound packaging in terms of its CO2 emissions? Paper or plastic? You may be surprised. The environmental cost of a packaging type as measured by its CO2 emissions depends mostly on the energy that is required to manufacture it and the energy that is required to transport the packaging material to the point at which it is used (ie. the delivery of the bags to the roaster).

A few years ago, the Environment Agency performed a lifecycle analysis of different types of shopping bags (plastic, paper, cloth). Plastic bags are typically significantly lighter than the heavier paper bags. So, in addition to the cost of making the bags, it is going to require more energy to transport paper bags to the point of use. The report calculated that the manufacture and transportation of paper bags consumed so much more energy than plastic bags, that paper bags had to be re-used 4 times in order to have the same CO2 emissions as an ordinary supermarket plastic bag, re-used as a bin liner. The situation for a cloth bag was even worse.

Although the plastic used for coffee packaging is much heavier than a standard supermarket shopping bag, the analysis suggests that if your concern is CO2, paper is not necessarily better than plastic. It depends on how you are going to re-use the bags before you eventually recycle them.

Litter and Degradability

I hope that no one is deliberately discarding their used coffee packets onto the street or onto the beach! But litter and bio-degradability are big issues for plastic based packaging materials, particularly at sea. There are horrific stories about marine animals being starved due to consuming plastic or being drowned because they are entangled in it. Paper will degrade very quickly and so clearly does not suffer from the same problems as the plastic packaging in this topic. However, as mentioned above, not all plastic is the same. As well as ordinary plastic, your coffee could come roasted and packaged in a degradable plastic, either compostable or oxo-biodegradable.

sea no litter

There is a big problem with plastic litter ending up in the oceans

The name ‘compostable plastic’ (EN13432) is, to me, a bit disingenuous. It suggests that it breaks down in a composting facility such as my worm bin. But the standard EN13432 does not refer to such home-composting at all. For a plastic to be deemed compostable it has to break down under industrial composting conditions (ie. it is held at 58 C for the period of its degradation). Not all countries/councils offer such facilities for their waste disposal and so a compostable plastic sent to landfill offers little advantage over ‘ordinary’ plastic. However, in the marine environment it has been shown that the compostable plastic bag did degrade quickly relative to ordinary plastic bags‡.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic on the other hand works very differently. At the time of its manufacture, metal-salt catalysts are added to the plastic that determine how long the plastic survives before it breaks down. As long as it is exposed to light and oxygen, the oxo-biodegradable plastic will break down after, typically, 18 months (though the usable time can be made longer than this). Recent studies have shown that it is safe to recycle oxo-biodegradable plastic together with conventional plastic recycling†. Provided that the bag does not get covered in algae, an oxo-biodegradable plastic will break down after 18 months (if that was the time specified at manufacture) whether it is on land or on sea.

Therefore if litter is what you are worried about, you have to ask where you think that the plastics are going to end up and whether you want to be able to recycle them or just re-use them.

So what should you do?

There’s no point me answering this question for you. Ultimately I do not know your individual circumstances and concerns, nor how you are buying and consuming your coffee. Moreover, these considerations have been solely based on some of the environmental problems associated with different packaging. Coffee consumption has other factors, such as the major issue of how the coffee tastes. Earlier this year, Roasting House conducted an experiment to blind-taste the coffee after it had been stored in different types of packaging. You can find the results of that interesting study here.

a take away cup

The next problem. What should we do about take-away cups?

Personally, my concerns are principally the greenhouse gas emissions and the litter/degradability problem. I also buy coffee that is delivered to me very soon after it has been roasted. So I tend to favour packaging that uses unbleached, recycled paper. There is a caveat though. The CO2 emissions caused by paper manufacture and transportation means that I need to find a way to re-use the bags as often as possible before recycling/composting. Fortunately, I think there is a great use for old paper coffee bags: They are the perfect size for carrying loose vegetables or uncooked fish/meat products in supermarkets (rather than use the plastic bags that can be supplied for these products). Each paper coffee bag can be reused multiple times before it finally becomes unusable.

If I were drinking coffee that wasn’t quite so freshly roasted, I would be in favour of using oxo-biodegradable plastic (preferably from recycled material). I do not currently have an opinion on compostable (EN13432) plastic. The results of the degradation of compostable plastic in a marine environment were encouraging and if it starts to become genuinely compostable (as I understand the word in terms of home composting) it would definitely be a type of packaging to consider.

You may come to different conclusions, if you do so, please do let me know what you think in the comments section below. In the meantime, a map of coffee roasters who are trying to improve the environmental footprint of their packaging in a variety of ways can be found here.

 

I am grateful for discussions with Oh Ying Ying of Miracle Spectrum Sdn Bhd who helped me to navigate the minefield of environmental plastics. There is much more to write about plastics, the environment, litter & the Paris meeting, the whole issue of take-away cups for example!

∗ Yeow et al., “Bags for life: the embedding of ethical consumerism” J. Business Ethics, 125, 87 (2014)

‡ O’Brine et al., “Degradation of plastic carrier bags in the marine environment”, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 60, 2279 (2010)

† A report by the Transfer Centre für Kunststofftecknik GmbH (“TCKT”) dated 12 November 2013 on behalf of European Plastic Converters (EuPC), Roediger Agencies.

ª Plastics and the Environment, Ed. AL Andrady, Wiley-Interscience Publications, 2003