Recyclable cups? Yes, but no

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When I started my business it was important to me that I was kind to the environment. As an owner-operator, it’s easy for me to control every aspect of what I do so I figured it would be easy enough to collect all my used milk containers, cans and as many used coffee cups and lids as possible and recycle them. 

I chose a recyclable cup and lid which I pay a premium for and naturally believed that these cups, as the name suggests, are fully recyclable, but this simply isn’t the case. The cups still have plastic liners which means they end up being rejected at recycling plants and end up in landfill or being incinerated.  

Britain gets through 2.5 billion coffee cups every year, and the number is set to increase. But despite a growing clamour for coffee chains to make their cups more environment-friendly, the vast majority are used only once, which is a considerable waste of natural resources.

One company vying to produce a truly recyclable alternative claims that the UK’s love of coffee is responsible for the felling of a million trees a year! An independent study it commissioned suggests that almost 1.5 billion litres of water go into making the cups the UK uses annually.

A 2017 report found that only one in 400 cups end up being recycled, with the vast majority going straight to landfill. This suggests that coffee cups that end up in the UK’s landfill sites produce an annual carbon footprint equivalent to over 152,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, similar to what 33,300 cars produce in a year.

But a major issue for the industry is that even cups promoted as compostable cannot be recycled conventionally. They have to be transported by lorry to one of the UK’s 53 high-temperature industrial composting facilities, which increases their carbon footprint.

“The problem with conventional, coated and compostable cups is that they’re all made from virgin paper, and the laminated plastic coating is very hard to remove,” said Malcolm Waugh, chief executive of Frugalpac, an Ipswich-based company that produces an alternative called the Frugal Cup, which is made almost totally from recycled paper, and which funded the study.

“Our answer was to redesign the cup by scrapping the laminated virgin paperboard and instead make the cup out of 96% recycled paper with no waterproofing chemicals, and then lightly attach a separately made plastic food grade liner. Not perfect yet but a damn sight better than the alternatives.”

It’s predicted that using cups made from recycled paper would save a million trees a year in Britain and more than 200 million worldwide.

Producing a truly recyclable coffee cup is a key issue for environmental groups. The WWF forecasts that by 2030 the UK will use 33% more cups than it does now.

Armed with this new information and understanding I plan to make the change over to a much more environmentally friendly alternative as soon as possible. The latest cups are either 100% home compostable which means they naturally decompose in a short space of time, or are completely plastic-free. An infinitely better solution.

I also buy cups from responsible companies who invest heavily into planting new trees to replace the ones that are used in production, often at a 3:1 ratio which is great to know.

My biggest ambition is to get my customers using reusable cups wherever possible but with the current COVID situation they really aren’t safe for coffee shops to use, but watch this space. I have a branded, fully recyclable, reusable cup ready to roll out as soon as things start to improve.

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