What are the options for recyclable cups?

Brits are addicted to coffee, especially when they’re on the go. An estimated 8m take­away coffees are sold every day in the UK, and that figure is expected to increase. Commercially, that’s great news for cafés, caterers and convenience stores, as well as their wholesale suppliers, but recently the category has been attracting headlines for the wrong reasons.

“Paper cups are now the UK’s fastest-growing waste stream,” explains Peter Goodwin, co-founder of recycling scheme Simply Cups. “We believe that more than 10bn plastic and paper cups are used every year. However, less than one in 400 are being recycled.”

The problem stems from the fact that paper cups are not made solely of paper – they’re also 5% polythene, thanks to a thin inner plastic coating. This lining prevents a mocha turning to mush, but makes separating the materials for recycling expensive. Paper mills, for example, don’t tend to accept them, which means that popping them in a recycling bin is “pointless”, according to chef turned waste campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

He adds: “These poly-lined cups are technically capable of being recycled – a fact that enables coffee companies to describe them as ‘recyclable’. However, the reality is that this is only possible in a highly specialised recycling facility – of which there are only two in the UK.”

Coffee cups were the focus of Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest BBC TV show, War On Waste, in which he heavily criticised high street chains Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero for happily playing along with the perception that their cups are readily recyclable. This perception also has implications for wholesalers selling hot beverage products and disposable cups, especially as a survey by consumer group Which? found that eight in 10 people believe they can dispose of takeaway cups in paper recycling facilities.

The race is therefore on to find a solution or an alternative

Martin Myerscough is at the head of the queue. He claims to have designed a cup that can be recycled with newspaper waste. The plastic liner in his Frugalpac cups is only lightly bonded to the paper, so the two materials separate more easily.

“The unique way we make our cups allows us to use recycled paper and not virgin cardboard from mature trees,” Myerscough explains. “It also means we don’t have to add waterproofing agents to the paper. Our cups are acceptable to all normal paper mills.”

Starbucks is “very interested” in the product, a spokesman for the coffee chain says. “We will be testing it to see if it meets our standards for safety and quality with a view to trialling its recyclability.”

Costa, meanwhile, has already given it a go, but found a range of flaws, according to Costa UK and Ireland MD Jason Cotta: “We met with Frugalpac early last year and ran similar tests to those announced by Starbucks, but concluded that the cup did not meet our high standard of performance, quality and taste.”

Myerscough says the product has been “refined and improved” since then, yet the big brands tend to be very picky. Looking at some samples, it’s easy to see why the cups might not have come up to scratch: the plastic liner is clearly visible, for instance, so aesthetically it doesn’t match the standard cups. And although a recycled Frugalpac cup may also have a lower carbon footprint than its standard, landfilled equivalent, if it taints the coffee, as Cotta suggests, it’s a no-go.

paper cup options

So what does this mean for wholesalers who deal in these kind of products?

Genuinely greener options are “interesting”, says Martin Kersh, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, but they have to be available in big quantities. “A product that goes out of stock won’t work for wholesale,” he explains.

This highlights the complexities in today’s world of foodservice packaging – the best environmentally-optimised solution can quickly unravel if it doesn’t perform to corporate standards at a commercial scale. But if its issues can be solved, Frugalpac could be an avenue for wholesalers to explore to help give their customers a USP over the coffee chain giants.

And what of the other options, such as compostable coffee cups?

“Compostable packaging offers a real, working solution,” claims Xanthe Galanis-Hancox, communications manager at eco-packaging firm Vegware. Vegware’s compostable cups use a lining based on plants that replaces the plastic, and are designed to be recycled with food waste, having met European standard EN13432.

For products to be labelled EN13432, they have to biodegrade within 12 weeks, after which no more than 10% of material fragments are allowed to be larger than 2mm. Novamont offers a range of EN13432-compliant foodservice products; and in Italy, where food waste collections are being rolled out widely, they are proving popular, says Paul Darby, Novamont’s area manager for the UK and Ireland.

Compostable packaging was also used at the London 2012 Olympics. There, the closed environment of the sites made it easier to ensure that the packaging ended up in the right bins. That isn’t the case for the 5bn takeaway cups that leave coffee shops, c-stores and canteens in the UK every year, though, and this is a major headache – one that even Fearnley-Whittingstall failed to address.

Indeed, it’s one thing to provide cups that are recyclable or compostable, quite another to ensure there are bins available to collect them. Consumers also have to understand which bins to put them in. Is there any point in a compostable cup, for example, if there are no local composting or food waste collections?

This is a question that has rumbled on. As Andrew Tolley, co-founder of the coffee chains Harris+Hoole and Taylor Street Baristas, says: “If compostable cups end up in landfill then there’s no real benefit. We use compostable because we see them as ‘the least evil’ option.”

Compostable cups are, however, more expensive, notes Andrew Smith, OCS and vending sales manager for Lavazza. He says that the expanding market for compostables has lowered prices, but wholesalers would still find it tough to sell them to customers having a hard time of it.

The big challenge is breaking the UK habit of ordering a coffee, drinking it, then throwing the cup in the bin without considering the consequences. Could a tax on cups swing the balance? The concept has worked for plastic bags, supporters say, as the 5p charge has reportedly cut consumption in England by 85%.

But when the government’s ex-resource minister, Rory Stewart, suggested in March that a cup tax may be wise, the idea was quickly shot down. The government prefers voluntary action to regulation, so ministers will be looking to the industry’s recently-launched paper cup recycling manifesto to fulfil a promise to ‘significantly increase’ recycling by 2020.

That won’t be easy but consumers – increasingly on the hunt for brands and vendors that match their values – will likely be watching any progress closely.


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