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Food & Wine To protect the planet: To-go coffee cups made out of mushrooms or grass to replace non-recyclable versions?

Since the 1980s paper to-go cups have become ubiquitous around the world. Those cups can take decades, according to some estimates, to break down in landfills.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

For an entire weekend, William Moniz wouldn’t let the cup out of his sight. At dinner with his family, he kept the black and red Aroma Espresso paper cup on the table beside him. In the car on his way to meet friends, it was in the cup holder next to him.

Each conversation that weekend, he’d start with the same questions: “What do you normally do with these cups? How do you feel about throwing them in the garbage afterwards?”

The problem the Mississauga-based Mr. Moniz was looking to solve is one that’s plagued global food giants for decades: How can they build a more sustainable to-go coffee cup – one that is recyclable, instead of being thrown out along with the estimated 250 billion others that wind up each year in landfills?

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“This is a universal problem,” said Mr. Moniz, a master of environmental studies student who has worked in various startups since completing his MBA two years ago. “These cups are so embedded in our culture, and there has to be a better way to use them.”

The first disposable cup was invented in the early 20th century, as new knowledge about germs and disease sparked fears about the use of communal cups. The Dixie cup evolved into the foam cup, capable of handling hot temperatures, until the environmental problems associated with foam sparked new concerns. Since the 1980s – and aided in large part by Starbucks – paper to-go cups have become ubiquitous around the world.

The problem, however, is that the standard paper coffee cup is made up of two components. The paper cup itself is recyclable. But the thin polyethylene liner inside it, which keeps the cup heatproof and waterproof, is not.

Acknowledging this – and in response to rising pressure from environmental groups – some of the world’s largest food companies, including Starbucks and McDonald’s, have come together to issue a challenge to inventors, engineers and hobbyists around the world: Come up with a new solution, and win up to US$1-million ($1.3-million) in funding for testing and development.

By the end of that weekend in November, Mr. Moniz was sure he’d come up with the winning solution. Using an old business card and some tissue paper, he doctored the cup in such a way that, with a simple twist, the paper shell and the plastic liner would come apart. The plastic liner would go in the garbage, while the paper, at least, could be recycled.

Customers would be encouraged to take that extra step with offers of discounts and free beverages.

“I’m approaching it from the consumer side because that’s the way I understand things,” he said. “So I want to have incentives as a consumer – I want to really change behaviours.”

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His idea would become one of hundreds of entries from around the world. The judges have since funnelled those down to seven (none of them Canadian – Mr. Moniz didn’t make the shortlist), and in February, they’ll announce their favourites.

Many of the entries proposed a return to the pre-20th-century “cup-sharing” – programs where consumers would be able to “rent” reusable cups that could be picked up and dropped off at various cafés and restaurants. Many others suggested cups made from inventive materials – cups made out of everything from hemp to banana leaves, to one cheeky entrant who suggested making coffee cups out of coffee grounds. The finalists include a cup made of mushrooms, and another using grass.

The challenge might seem simple, until you understand the requirements and their complexities. The winning cup is one that will have to fit with existing recycling and waste-recovery infrastructure all over the world. It also has to meet existing food-safety and health regulations all around the world.

“When devising your concept, we encourage you to ask yourself,” the challenge website reads: “How might this solution make life better for users, businesses, and the world?”

According to the competition’s organizers, an estimated 266 billion to-go cups will be distributed globally by 2022. Those cups can take decades, according to some estimates, to break down in landfills.

The 266-billion figure comes as a surprise to local experts, who say that exact numbers are difficult to come by. Brock Macdonald, the CEO of the Recycling Council of British Columbia, said that here in Canada, his group estimates about 1.6 billion of these cups are used each year. (According to the city of Toronto, millions of the cups are thrown out in that one city alone, and remain “a source of contamination” in the blue-bin program, with people mistakenly believing they belong in recycling.)

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Mr. Macdonald said that the approach by the competition’s organizers will only be a Band-Aid one. The real solution, he said, is moving away from disposable cups altogether.

“If you walk into a Starbucks … people often stay in the store and drink [with the disposable cups],” he said. “Why can’t they just use a ceramic coffee mug?”

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