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A campaign about the massive environmental issue associated with waste coffee cups and the need to ensure that they are recycled or are fully compostable is being fought out in the British media

It has been estimated that every year in the UK, 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away and only one in 400 is recycled. Given the rapid growth in the coffee shop sector in the UK in recent years, and expectations that the sector will continue to grow, concern has been expressed about the potential environmental effect, not least by TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has been leading a campaign to see the issue addressed. Of course, there figure are only UK figures – billions of used coffee cups must also be going to landfill or being disposed of in other environmentally unfriendly, unsustainable ways in other markets around the world. “The sorry truth is, next to none of them are recycled,” Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote in an article for the BBC. “And the even sorrier fact is that no-one is taking responsibility for that, least of all the big coffee retailers who have created this takeout trash mountain.”

He described the ‘coffee cup crisis’ as a “wanton waste” going on right under our noses. “Most consumers wrongly assume that paper cups are a ‘green’ choice,” he wrote. “It’s an assumption coffee companies are happy not to challenge. They know differently, but they’re keeping that to themselves. They’re not going to tell conscientious consumers that putting a used coffee cup in a recycling bin is pointless. But it is. The takeout cups that are the stock-in-trade of High Street coffee giants such as Starbucks, Caffe Nero and Costa are currently almost impossible to recycle. To make these cups waterproof, the card is fused with polyethylene, a material that cannot be separated out again in a standard recycling mill. What’s more, the cups are not even made from recycled material in the first place – the way they are designed means one thin seam of card inside the cup comes into contact with the hot drink, so they have to be made from virgin paper pulp. The millions of coffee cups we use every day are, in effect, virgin materials with a single use, thrown almost immediately into the bin – a horrendous waste, with a hefty carbon footprint. Poly-lined cups are, technically, capable of being recycled – a fact that enables coffee companies to describe them as ‘recyclable.’ However, the reality is this is only possible in a highly specialised recycling facility, of which there are only two in the UK.”


Misleading messages?


On his website, Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall claimed that the two biggest coffee companies in the UK, Costa Coffee and Starbucks, both have misleading messages about waste on their websites. “There is a company using a specialist facility in Cumbria called Simply Cups that recycles a small number of cups from a few companies – including some from Costa and McDonalds. I’ve been in touch with Simply Cups, and the total they handle is still less than 6 million a year, which is less than a quarter of one per cent of the cups we throw away. We want transparency, and we want action from these companies,” he said. “Only by changing to a cup that is properly recyclable in the public waste disposal system, or by massively investing in new specialized facilities, can they justify the bold environmental claims they are making. This is a solvable problem, so let’s see them solve it. The coffee companies are taking advantage of the public’s false confidence in their responsible actions. They are actively encouraging the misunderstanding, with claims and statements on their websites, and the two biggest, Costa and Starbucks, seem to be the worst culprits.”

Costa claims to have ‘the most environmentally friendly coffee cup in the world,’ says Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall. “But they do not explain on what basis they make this claim. In a recent e-mail to me personally they even say their cups are already ‘100 per cent recyclable.’ They do send some cups to Simply Cups – but our calculations suggest it’s less than 1 per cent of all Costa paper cups. I openly invite Costa to prove they are doing better than that. I believe they are using a tiny commitment to Simply Cups to justify statements that are basically greenwash.

“Starbucks claims on its website that they are ‘on track’ with their goal to make 100 per cent of our cups reusable or recyclable. As things stand, Starbucks are not yet a client of Simply Cups. So unless they have a secret facility they are not currently able to recycle any of their cups in the UK.”


Charge led to reduction in plastic bag use


More recently, Catherine Bearder, a Member of the European Parliament, has called on the government in the UK to address the issue, noting that when the former coalition government in the UK between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives introduced a 5p charge on plastic bag use, the result was extremely successful, and single-use plastic bag fell by more than 85 per cent per cent, from seven billion to around 500 million. Ms Bearder has written a letter to the UK’s new Environment Minister, Andrea Leadsom, urging her to address the problem.

In response to both recent media attention and consumer concern over the recycling of paper cups, the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) and Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG) in the UK have launched an industry-wide manifesto with the objective of significantly increasing paper cup recovery and recycling rates by 2020. The manifesto has more than 45 signatories Including Costa/Whitbread Group Plc and Starbucks), representing each stage of the paper cup supply chain from raw material suppliers, cup manufacturers and retail high street brands to waste and recovery operators and paper re-processors. Mark Pawsey MP, Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Packaging, who has been closely involved in the development of the manifesto and formally launched the initiative, said: “I’m encouraged to see industry working so closely together to find and implement solutions for recovering and recycling paper cups.”


Costa and Starbucks signs recycling manifesto


The manifesto is a voluntary commitment, funded by its members, to deliver systemic change that will increase the sustainable recovery and recycling rates of used paper cups. The manifesto work programme will be run by an industry-wide executive board made up of elected members, with delegated reporting working groups. Signatory organisations are publicly recognising that working together is essential if long-lasting change is to be achieved. It will provide a public commitment from signatories to work collaboratively to increase access to information, schemes and facilities that enable used paper cups to be sustainably recovered and recycled. The manifesto pledges that: “The paper cup supply chain agrees to work together to ensure paper cups are designed, used, disposed of and collected to maximise the opportunities for recycling by further investment and funding of recycling, disposal and collection projects.” The manifesto sets out the industry’s intentions, bringing together all of the interested parties to combine efforts to create change. The publication of the manifesto followed two summit meetings in April and May 2016.

Martin Kersh, Executive Director of the Foodservice Packaging Association said: “The Foodservice Packaging Association has long been promoting the importance of its members’ products which have played a vital part in the growth of the economy but has also provided a wide range of benefits in hygiene, safety and convenience that is often overlooked. That said, it also recognises the demands of today’s society and consumers and is pleased to be able to work on this important project to support and increase the sustainability of the industry.”

Neil Whittall, chairman of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group said: “Whilst previous work has given a good insight into what is required it is recognised that it is only through increased industry collaboration that the pace of change can be increased to meet the challenge that has been set out. We are grateful for the recognition and support that Defra has given the project, and to all the signatories who will make this happen.”

Compostable coffee cups present a sustainable solution to waste caused by takeaway drinks packaging, says the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA). In an article in The Times newspaper earlier this year, Viridor Chief Executive Ian MacAulay claimed that, due to the cost of recycling them, the best solution for single-use disposable coffee cups is to incinerate them to generate energy.


Compostable packaging


“Traditional packaging materials, with composites such as paper and plastics in the same item, are indeed difficult to recycle,” said the BBIA. “Most foodservice packaging in the UK goes to landfill or incineration as, when combined, the easily recycled materials of card and plastic contaminate one another, with food and drink residue adding to the mix. Compostable coffee cups are available on the market in the UK, said the BBIA, and can be recycled back to the soil from which they came to create a circular recovery. “Compostable packaging is an extremely practical solution for closed environments like offices, catering, airports and closed events, where the waste stream can be most effectively controlled and the resulting waste directed to effective recovery via composting,” said the association. BBIA Managing Director David Newman has also suggested a 5-10p tax on coffee cups could reduce consumption of throw-away cups. The money raised from the tax could then pay for more advanced infrastructure that could separate materials.

He added: “In the recycling industry it is a known fact that coffee cups are mostly not recycled. They are often made from laminated plastic and cardboard together, which makes it almost impossible to recycle as the process and cost to do that is not economical. There is a lot of misinformation. Everything is potentially recyclable, but whether there are facilities in place to recycle and a viable market for the recyclates is another story.”


Starbucks trials recyclable cup


More recently, Starbucks has begun trials with ‘Frugalpac’ recyclable cups. Frugalpac claims to have created the world’s ‘first fully recyclable coffee cup.’ The coffee company plans to test the cups, which were invented by entrepreneur and engineer Martin Myerscough. As highlighted above, existing cups are made by gluing a thin layer of plastic film to paper whilst it is flat. The film, which provides the waterproof layer to the cup, is bonded very strongly to the paper. Without this layer the cup would leak and go soft. This flat sheet is then printed and formed into the cup shape. The film is heated in specific areas and these parts of the cup are pressed together. The film layer of the cup is not only bonded hard to the paper but is also trapped in the joints adding to the difficulty of recycling. As also highlighted above, existing cups require specialist recycling facilities. The process uses a lot more energy and chemicals than normal paper recycling. In most countries once the cup has left the store there is no mechanism for them to get to the specialist mills. Frugalpac cups are made from recycled paper board without any added chemicals. “Our cups are made by initially forming the paper and then applying the liner to the inside. The thin plastic liner is then welded into a cup shape and lightly glued into the formed cup. The top of the liner is rolled over the lip of the cup,” the company explained. “Because the liner is so lightly glued in place, when the cup goes to the standard paper mills it separates from the paper in the recycling process. Our cup can be discarded into waste paper and cardboard streams including newspaper bins on the street, having first removed the lid. The cup will then go to normal paper recycling mills. The plastic in the cups comes out, quite literally, in the wash. The film is intact and is trapped by the filters. As our paper doesn’t need chemicals it breaks down quickly in the paper recycling process.”


Scale of the problem is massive


David McLagan, Founder and CEO of a reusable and biodegradable coffee cup brand, Ecoffee Cup, said: “The problem is much bigger when we look beyond the UK. With estimates of up to half a trillion manufactured globally, over 100 billion single-use cups go to landfill each year. Starbucks, in the US alone, serves 8,000 cups per minute.

“Unfortunately, no-one can or will be inclined to disclose exactly how many cups are manufactured per year. The major culprits, the big coffee shop chains, are particularly sheepish. Single-use cups make up a major component of their consumer offering and are entrenched in their business model. It’s difficult for them to change their behaviour unless they are forced to. Due to the volumes produced, single-use cups are cheap and make up a miniscule percentage of the cost of a cup of coffee, which means a change to something more sustainable will impact on profits, and shareholders are averse to anything that does that. Starbucks has announced it will be trialling frugalpac cup in the UK. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, we don‘t believe it tackles the problem at the source. We can’t see how this will work in practical terms either. Separation and non-contamination of recycling is the key and unless facilities exist, it will be very difficult to ensure such separation occurs, especially when dealing with cups that are taken off premises. Instead, and as is the current reality, cups will simply end up in general waste. In order to have any impact at all, coffee chains need to invest in special facilities – dedicated bins, dedicated waste recovery, dedicated recycling facilities – and pool resources to do it. Unfortunately, we can’t see this happening any time soon. ■ C&CI


This article has been published in the September 2016 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read other informative articles in the September and future issues of C&CI. 

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