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Sustainability and ceramic cups at the Mosman Park EcoFair

This Saturday my boyfriend and I went to the Mosman Park EcoFair, which was just a few suburbs over from where we live. The fair takes place in the beautiful grounds of St Luke’s Church and community garden, and was a mix of stalls selling organic and fairtrade food, traders selling eco goods, seedlings, vintage clothing and all things green, and some great demonstrations and workshops. Combined with the perfect weather and fantastic atmosphere it was a really fun afternoon out.

I saw a great ‘Food Theatre’ workshop run by Chris Ferreira from The Forever Project and Hannah Sfornica from A Foodly Affair which combined sustainable (and water-wise) gardening with cooking and talked about the importance of good soil, the importance of organic and locally sourced food, how what you eat is made from what you put in the soil and your body is fueled from what you eat. Sustainability and real food, two of my favourite subjects! Hannah made the most amazing raw pumpkin soup for the audience to try. Both Hannah and Chris are fantastic presenters, and Hannah is both an inspiration and a wealth of knowledge and practical advice regarding ‘mindful’ eating, as she likes to call it. I would thoroughly recommend attending the workshops they run if you’re in the Perth area.

But my absolute favourite thing about the fair was that there was no disposable single-use plastic – no plastic bags, no takeaway cups, no plastic straws, no plastic water bottles and no plastic throwaway plates. And this was achieved in such a simple way – by having a washing-up station! All of the food stalls used ceramic plates and mugs, provided by the Church or sourced from various op shops, which were happily washed up by a team of dedicated Western Earth Carers volunteers.

It’s such an obvious concept really, doing the washing up, and the people who volunteered seemed to be having a great time in the sunshine, chatting to everyone that passed by and doing an awesome job of raising awareness of single-use plastic, and how easy it is to avoid with just a little bit of thought and effort.

And the result of their efforts was fantastic. The organizers were told they would need 20 bins for the size and length of the event (with over 65 stalls plus other activities over 6 hours) but instead, for the whole day, the waste that was generated filled just three recycling bins and one landfill bin. Result!

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.

How to…Line your Rubbish Bin without a Plastic Bag

Australians use nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, using each for only a few minutes. When you think that plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, it seems pretty crazy to be using such a valuable resource to make something that’s only going to be used for such a short amount of time, and then thrown away.

A common argument – or even justification – for using these plastic bags is, oh but I do recycle my bags, I use them to line my rubbish bin. Thing is, that’s not recycling. It’s barely even re-using.

It’s still sending to landfill, just with other rubbish inside.

I have to confess, before I signed up to Plastic Free July I used to take the odd plastic bag from the shops when I needed to line my rubbish bin. I certainly wasn’t going to pay for virgin plastic to line my bin in the form of fancy bin liners. And what is the point in buying compostable corn starch liners when you’re sending them (and their contents) to landfill, where they won’t break down? Landfill sites essentially bury the waste and prevent exposure to air, moisture and light – and also the microbes that can break them down.

And then someone said to me, why don’t you line your rubbish bin with old newspaper? Such a simple and obvious solution! I really don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

How to Line a Rubbish Bin Without a Plastic Bag

All you need is a few sheets of old newspaper. I use three sets of two sheets, and sometimes I’ll fold some additional ones to put in the base. It takes about a minute.

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When the bin is nearly full you simply roll over the tops to make a parcel and dump in your outdoor rubbish bin. The great thing is that newspaper is usually made from recycled paper so has already had a previous life (or several lives) before you send it off to landfill.

What are you waiting for?!