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The perils of takeaway coffee

I’m a coffee fan, and I like to treat myself to a proper coffee-shop coffee now and then. Nothing beats a decent cup of coffee served by a barista – and unless you have a coffee machine in your kitchen that cost the same as a small car, it’s just not something you can recreate at home.

I’m generally more of a dine-in kinda girl. I like the experience of just sitting there, maybe reading the paper, chatting with friends and family, watching the world go by. But there are times when I get takeaway. When there’s no tables, for example. Or no papers. Or I want to take my coffee with me on the train, to my desk, or to the park.

I’ve always been suspicious of takeaway coffee cups. Even before I knew about plastic, I wasn’t a fan. With their lids that often don’t fit properly, their flimsiness (squeeze too hard and you’re wearing the coffee) and their non-recyclability, nope, I wasn’t a fan.

But bio-degradable takeaway cups? Now they seemed different. Made of renewable resources, and with their promises of sustainability and compost-ability, they seemed to be the answer.

But then I looked into it a little more.

From a environmentally-responsible and sustainability point of view, traditional takeaway coffee cups are bad. At worst, they are made of styrofoam (polystyrene), which is a plastic foam packaging that is rarely accepted for recycling. Even the takeaway coffee cups that are seemingly made from paper or card contain plastic – they have a polyethylene lining – which makes them non-recyclable. (How else could they be waterproof?!) And plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels like oil.

So what about biodegradable takeaway coffee cups? Well these are free of plastics made from fossil fuels. One company that make these cups is BioPak: instead of using plastic from fossil fuels, they use a plastic called PLA made from cornstarch, and state ‘compostable and biodegradable’ on the packaging.

However, actual compost-ablility of some of these brands is questionable. I have friends who have tried composting these ‘eco’ cups and putting them in worm farms, and months later they are still completely intact. But even for those brands which will compost, they won’t break down if they’re sent to landfill. The conditions of landfill sites mean there is no oxygen, so microbes cannot break down anything that would normally be biodegradable. There’s nothing sustainable about using a compostable cup unless you are actually going to compost it. In fact, on their website BioPak acknowledge that their cups will only break down in a commercial compost facility, and are more likely to end up in landfill.

So the main benefit to using these cups is that they aren’t made of plastic from fossil fuels. They use other virgin materials though, it’s likely they still use fossil fuels in their manufacturing processes, and they still cause the same problems with landfill. And another interesting thing I learned from the BioPak website, is that PLA is made from genetically modified corn. So this raises other environmental issues. Whatever they may claim, it’s hard to think of these cups as a real environmentally responsible solution.

But what about when you want to buy a coffee?

Ask yourself, are you really in a hurry? So much so that you can’t spare five minutes to sit down, drink your coffee and then go on your way? I’ve seen so many people buy a takeaway coffee and they’ve drunk the entire thing on the two minute walk back to the office before they’re even back at their desk.

Oh. You are in a hurry.

So what’s the solution?

Buy a reusable takeaway coffee cup.

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There’s a few different brands on the market, but I bought a KeepCup. Yes it’s plastic, but it’s durable and I’ve used it numerous times. (I bought it after I gave up single-use disposable plastic, but before I started questioning the other plastic in my life.) I love it because it’s the same size as the standard takeaway coffee cup sizes, meaning it is accepted everywhere, I don’t get short-changed at the shop, it keeps your coffee warm longer than disposable takeaway coffee cups do, and it’s waste free!

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A sustainable coffee-shop run at the office! (And the cardboard tray has been reused too – extra points!)

I would love it if they brought out a stainless steel version, but they haven’t as yet. If you don’t want to buy plastic, there are other companies which sell ceramic and stainless steel alternatives, although the sizes aren’t standardised.

I aim to take my KeepCup with me whenever I go out. Even if I don’t want a coffee, it’s useful for using at water dispensers to avoid plastic disposable cups. And what if I want a coffee and I’ve forgotten my cup? I dine in.

Worm Farms…Tips and Tricks

After writing my post yesterday on how to build a DIY worm farm, I thought it might be useful to write another post explaining how to look after your worms, and also provide some reasons why you might consider worm farming in the first place.

In their National Waste Policy fact sheet, the Australian Government estimate that two-thirds of waste sent to landfill is organic. If you’re not sure what I mean by organic, it’s the waste that originally came from plants and animals which can be broken down. As well as the obvious grass clippings, food scraps and bones, this includes cardboard, paper and wood. In 2006-2007, Australians landfilled almost 14 million TONNES of organic waste. A full garbage truck holds 10 tonnes. Sending all that organic waste to landfill meant an extra 1.4 million garbage trucks on our roads. Even if you think Australia’s got the space, that’s a lot of unnecessary heavy road traffic, not to mention fossil fuel burning and airborne pollutants via vehicle emissions.

Next up, soil quality. Australia has some of the oldest land masses on Earth, and consequently they are nutrient-poor and with little organic matter. Perth has some of the worst agricultural soils in the world. (Someone once told me that it was officially the poorest soil in the world, but I can’t find anything that confirms it. However, ask anyone who ever tried to grow anything in the soil in Perth, and they’ll confirm it for you!) The sandy soil repels water and also nutrients. If you want to grow plants in Australia, you need to improve your soil by adding organic matter. And this is where the worms come in!

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Worms and their castings. Castings are the product created when worms break down organic matter, and contain nutrients that plants can uptake easily.

Worms eat organic waste and break into down into a product called castings. These castings contain beneficial nutrients that can easily be absorbed by plants. Their texture also enables them to retain water and so they are great for improving soil structure. And they won’t burn plants, as some chemical fertilizers do. Castings are also suitable for seedlings. Worms also produce a liquid that needs to be drained – worm wee! (Or more technically, leachate.) Some tips on using worm wee are provided below.

And keeping worms is fun! It’s free, they require very little maintenance, meaning you can go on holiday for weeks and they will still be alive on your return – how many pets can you say that about?

Tips & Tricks

So I’ve made the case for reducing fossil fuels, reducing landfill, improving your garden and having fun…so what’s keeping you from getting your own worm farm? Is it any of these?

1. Worm Farms smell.

Actually, they don’t smell if you look after them properly. Castings have an organic smell similar to the earthly smell of soil. The main cause of smelliness is too much food. It can be tempting once you set up your worm farm to add every single scrap of food to it immediately, but worms only eat their body weight in food every day, so you need to start small and increase the food once the worm numbers build up.

2. I don’t have a garden.

Neither do I! The worm farm takes up only a very small amount of space, and it will take several months to fill up the worm farm with castings. You can use them with house plants or pot plants and even if you don’t garden, you are bound to know someone who does so just give them the box of castings once it is full.

3. I don’t have time.

Seriously, how much time do you think you need?! Once the worm farm is set up, all you do is empty your food scraps that you would have thrown in the bin into the worm farm. It helps to have the worm farm nearby – if it’s located at the bottom of the garden you are far less likely to make the trip.

Problem-Solving

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully covers some of the more common problems that you might encounter.

My worm farm smells

Likely cause: too much food

Solution: STOP ADDING FOOD! Give the worms a chance to eat what they already have. Anaerobic conditions (no oxygen) can also cause this so give the top layer a stir to aerate.

My worms are escaping

Likely cause: If it is only a couple of worms, there is probably not an issue. If there is a mass exodus, then there may be too much moisture or too much food.

Solution: Add newspaper to reduce the moisture levels, and stop feeding if there are large amounts of uneaten food.

I have other pesties in my worm farm

Likely cause: Not all insects in your worm farm are problems, and you should expect to find other creatures making their home here. But some pests indicate problems.

Solution: Burying food should keep unwanted pests at bay. Flies indicate there is too much food, so reduce the feeding. Ants indicate that the conditions are too dry, so add water.

Other Things to Know

  • You need to use composting worms for your worm farm – varieties such as red worms or tiger worms, as these are adapted to the conditions of a worm farm, whereas ordinary earthworms are not.
  • Worms prefer cooler conditions so on a very hot day, add an ice pack above the worm blanket to keep the inside of the worm farm cool. However, freezing will kill them! (This is not a problem we have here in Perth but may be an issue in cooler climates.) If you are expecting a frost, bring the worm farm indoors.
  • Worms do not have teeth, but suck in food. The smaller the food particles are, the more they can eat. Blending or chopping helps, but if you can’t be bothered, freezing the food then allowing to thaw will help break down the cell walls and make it easier for your worms. And if you can’t manage that, just try to bury your food so it doesn’t attract pests.
  • Worms don’t like acidic conditions and don’t like acidic food such an onions and citrus. Avoid giving these to your worms.

Worm Wee vs Worm Tea

You may come across references on the internet to both worm wee (leachate), and worm tea. The two names are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but they refer to different products. Leachate is what drains from the worm farm. Worm tea is a product made using castings, water and molasses, which are “brewed” for 24-48 hours. The main difference is that worm tea is aerobic, and so great for plants, whereas leachate can be anaerobic.

Leachate is fine to add to compost, but if your leachate is anaerobic it may harm your plants. I learnt this the hard way, diluting my leachate to a 1:10 ratio (1 part leachate for 10 parts water) and pouring on my seedlings, which caused them all to go yellow and die.

The way my worm farm is designed, my leachate does not have much contact with air and so will always be anaerobic. If your leachate drains freely into an open container it will probably be aerobic. You can try to aerate your leachate by diluting and exposing to air for a couple of days before using. However, always exercise caution when using on plants. Make sure you dilute 1:10 with water, and avoid using on seedlings, house plants or other temperamental plants.