By Kellie Lindsay, Plastic Free Places Program Manager
Going plastic free for a business can seem like a daunting process. Many cafes we work with don't know where to start and don't have the time to research options. There is a lot of greenwashing out there which makes choosing the right products difficult. Our role is make it easy for them, and with the right advice and an action plan it suddenly becomes very do-able.
We ask cafes to first focus on six plastic items - water bottles, coffee cups/lids, straws, plastic bags, food ware (cutlery, cups, lids etc) and takeaway containers. These items represent the most problematic and prolific sources of the litter stream, yet they can all be easily replaced with better alternatives. Reducing their use will make a big difference to the amount of litter and plastic pollution entering our oceans.
When switching, always remember that reusable is better than disposable.
1. Water bottles
While we have container deposit schemes in most states to reduce plastic bottle litter, reducing the number of bottles in the first place is always preferable to recycling.
Provide table water in glasses and/or a water jug
Install an on-tap water system & and offer filtered/ carbonated options for dine-in customers.
Join a water refill network (we recommend TAP, which is worldwide) and offer a free water refill station for people who BYO bottle. This may also encourage new customers to your business. You can charge for filtered/carbonated options if you have these, and you can sell reusable water bottles.
Stock glass water options only. Be careful to source a brand that does not use a plastic lid, ring pull, or is shrink wrapped (see our blog on choosing water bottle alternatives).
Aluminium cans are a popular option, but these are coated inside and out with a plastic polymer. We only recommend their use in closed-loop situations where they can be captured for recycling.
2. Coffee cups & lids
Over 1 billion disposable coffee cups are used in Australia every year. The plastic inner lining means the majority of cups are not recycled, instead ending up in landfill. If mismanaged or littered they have the potential to end up in our oceans.
Provide washable cups for dine-in customers.
Offer a discount to dine-in customers as an incentive to stay.
Encourage customers to BYO reusable cups and consider offering a discount for this.
Sell reusable cups (these can be branded) and encourage customers to purchase them by offering their first drink for free. By doing this some cafes have banned disposable cups altogether and saved $$ on the cost of cups (don't believe us? Check this out).
Join a reusable 'swap n go' cup network. You simply stock the reusable cups provided by the network and swap them as customers bring them in for a new cup. These networks are usually free for cafes to participate, though some may charge. Popular choices are Green Caffeen or Returnr. Learn more about reusable networks HERE.
Provide a cup return service for regulars. This could be through a ‘mug library where regulars borrow and return a mug. Mugs can be donated by locals or sourced from op shops.
Look for 100% compostable cups with a PLA (bioplastic) lining. Choose brands whose cups are certified to the Australian Commercial Composting Standard (like BioPak or Greenmark). PLA is plant derived and compostable, so it is a better alternative to plastic. Note: there are currently no coffee cups on the market certified to home compost standards.
Traditional plastic coffee cup lids are made of polystyrene (PS), a plastic that is known to leach the toxic chemical styrene. To replace these, choose a home compostable bagasse (sugarcane pulp) lid (best alternative), or a commercially compostable PLA lid. Look for products certified to the Australian Composting Standards where possible.
If you choose PLA lids, be aware that they look very much like PS lids - see examples below. To tell the difference, note the recycling symbols - PLA has a symbol '7' and PS a symbol '6'. PLA will usually also have the word 'compostable' on it. When ordering, ensure to check you are getting the right ones.
PLA lids will need to be commercially composted - if littered they take a long time to biodegrade. However an alternative is bagasse, which is a byproduct of sugarcane- made from the pulp after the juice is extracted. These are home compostable, if littered they will break down naturally. We have had good reviews for these lids, and they are the option we recommend.
Plastic straws are used for an average of 20 minutes, however, they can last in the environment for years and are one of the top 10 items picked up in beach clean ups. Plastic straws suck!
Replace with reusable steel or glass straws - they look much classier and are a sustainable and cost effective option. Read about a cafe that did this. To clean, simply soak them and run them through the dishwasher. If you're concerned about cleaning for juices and smoothies, you can get straw brushes, or alternatively, use paper straw for those particular drinks (note: keep a stash of plastic straws behind the counter for people with a disability in genuine need of a plastic straw).
Encourage customers to BYO reusable straws. Consider selling them at the counter. Straws can even be branded.
Switch to paper straws - there are many good brands that make quality straws that won't fall apart or go soggy in your drink. Another alternative are wheat or rye straws, made from the stem of the plant, a byproduct from farming. Wheat and rye straws are naturally hard and gluten free.
You can also reduce the number of straws you are giving out (don't put them in every drink and place them behind the counter so people have to ask if they need one), or go a step further and simply not use straws at all! And yes businesses have done this, with success. If you choose this, ensure you communicate to customers so they understand why, and ensure to keep some plastic straws in-house for people with disabilities.
PLA (bioplastic) straws are another compostable option, but not preferred as they take a long time to biodegrade and require high heat, so are a problem if littered. Avoid oxo-degradable/biodegradable straws, these are plastic and when they break apart, they contribute to the worldwide microplastic problem.
4. Plastic bags
Plastic bags are quite often the cause of wildlife entanglement and ingestion. Degradable and biodegradable bags are NOT an good alternative. Degradable bags break into small pieces quickly and are readily ingested by wildlife. Biodegradable bags take up to 2 years to biodegrade in the environment, and by that time they have often done the damage.
Don’t provide plastic bags, instead offer reusable cloth bags (these can be branded and sold). Try source bags made from sustainable materials, or stock locally made Boomerang Bags (and support local recycling at the same time).
Encourage customers to bring their own bags.
Offer a borrow/ return cloth bag service for regulars who forget their bags.
Ask if customers really need a bag?
Provide recycled cardboard boxes for customers to use.
Provide paper bags (sustainably sourced).
5. Takeaway containers
Takeaway containers are littered frequently because they are usually used away from home. They are often made of polystyrene, which is toxic, and pose many health concerns for not only our wildlife, but us as well. We recommend that polystyrene is NEVER used for food packaging.
Allow customers to BYO container and consider offering a discount to encourage them. Put up signage to let people know.
Provide or sell reusable containers and offer a discount on next purchase (upon return of container). Containers could be branded.
Offer a borrow/ return service.
Disposable/ Takeaway Options
Some businesses assume that plastic containers are the only choice due to hot liquid or the need for containers to be freezable. In fact there are many suitable compostable products available that are leak-proof, freezer-proof and microwavable, that will keep food hot, and that look great. Products made from sugarcane (bagasse) are a good example of this. PLA products are also available, though note that PLA is not suitable for hot food. Be wary of products labelled only as biodegradable, ensure they are also certified 100% compostable. For food that is not wet, unlined cardboard is also an option. Source sustainably by looking for FSC certified products.
6. Foodware (cutlery, cups, plates etc.)
Foodware items are usually used away from home and in public areas, and tend to be littered frequently.
For dine-in, don't use disposable items - use washable reusable items such as stainless steel cutlery and ceramic plates. These items are cost-effective in the long run and reduce waste volume and costs to your business.
For takeaway, choose certified 100% certified compostable items (preferably home compostable certified under Australian Standards). For plates and bowls, choose items made sustainably, from FSC certified paper or from byproducts (sugarcane/bagasse is a good example of this). For cold cups, look for paper, either unlined (preferred) or lined with PLA. For cutlery, bamboo/ wood is the best option. Avoid products labelled only as biodegradable, ensure they are also certified 100% compostable.
Where do I find these products?
Many local distributors now stock these products, so often it's a case of contacting yours and simply changing your products, using this as a guide. Be careful though, there are many products out there that pose as 'green', but are in fact anything but. If you are purchasing disposable products, ensure you are purchasing certified 100% compostable.
And if you're concerned about costs, we have you covered! Going plastic free doesn't have to hit your bottom line. Check out our blog on going plastic free and saving money.
We encourage you to then take it further, look at things like sauce packets, sugar sachets etc, as well as back-of-house and reducing waste.