Coffee Cup Recycling Bins “Have Little Impact”, Research Suggests

National research has found just 10% of people use specialist in-store recycling bins to discard their used paper coffee cups, raising serious question marks over the efforts of the coffee industry to combat waste, says Frugalpac.

The majority of paper cups are used on-the-go, away from the place of purchase. As a result, very few customers return their cups to these specialist bins. Even if a specialist bin is used, the cups still have to be thoroughly cleaned prior to being transported to a dedicated specialist recycling plant.

 “There are worrying signs that placing different types of recycling bins may well be exacerbating the problem – consumers rightly assume that by placing their cup in one of these bins, ‘they’ve done their bit’”

This is the finding of research conducted by Frugalpac, which designs and develops sustainable packaging. It commissioned ICM Unlimited to interview 2,005 adults aged 18+ online between 31 March and 2 April 2017.  Using Litmus, ICM’s Omnibus service – the data was weighted to be a nationally representative sample.

The research also revealed 50% of consumers believe their coffee cups are being recycled all or most of the time. In reality, only 1 in 400 paper cups in the UK is actually recycled, Frugalpac says.

This research shows there is significant confusion among consumers about the recyclability of coffee cups and raises big questions about the effectiveness of existing recycling schemes.

The research also found:

  • 89% of people think that it is the responsibility of coffee shops to stock recyclable paper cups.
  • 92% of respondents said that they thought it was important to be able to dispose of takeaway paper cups within the current recycling system (i.e. current paper and cardboard recycling bins).
  • 61% of people list coffee cups being recycled as being an important consideration when they purchase their drink.

Big Coffee Brands

Consumers are clear where they think improvements can be made. 89% of people think that coffee shops should communicate more clearly what share of the hot drinks paper cups they serve can actually be recycled. Questions were also raised around how committed big brands are to reducing the environmental impact of their takeaway hot drinks cups.

The research found that just:

  • 45% of people thought Costa is committed
  • 40% of people thought Starbucks is committed
  • 40% of people thought Greggs is committed
  • 39% of people thought Caffe Nero is committed
  • 36% of people thought Pret a Manger is committed
  • 34% of people thought McCafe is committed
  • 29% of people thought Eat is committed

Martin Myerscough, Founder of Frugalpac said: “There are worrying signs that placing different types of recycling bins may well be exacerbating the problem – consumers rightly assume that by placing their cup in one of these bins, ‘they’ve done their bit’.

“This would be true if we changed the way that coffee cups were manufactured so that they could go in any recycling bin, something which consumers have said they would welcome.

“The simplest way of encouraging people and businesses to reduce their contribution to waste is to give them products which can be recycled easily.

“Equally, although retailers have made great progress in placing increased numbers of cup recycling bins inside and outside their stores – such as the square mile scheme, which in itself ignores the other 94,060 sq. miles of the UK – yet without materially changing the product that is going into the bin, this will have little effect in the long term.”

Coffee Cup Waste

The UK is facing a challenge of unprecedented scale: people are drinking more cups of coffee than ever before and outlets serving coffee are opening at breakneck speed. According to Local Data Company figures, between 2011 and 2016 there was a 31% increase in the number of coffee shops across the UK.

At least 2.5 billion paper coffee cups are being thrown away in the UK every year. That’s almost 5,000 a minute, or 7 million per day. The vast majority of paper coffee cups go to general waste and landfill. This is because standard recycling plants are unable to separate the inner plastic lining within the cup from the paper. It is highly expensive for companies to send coffee cups to specialist recycling plants, meaning very few are.

The House of Common’s Environmental Audit Committee recently launched an inquiry into the problem of coffee cup waste.


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  1. Every day we are seeing more and more announcements of new collection schemes, both in store and in the street. What would help levels of recycling is if the government created a coordinated recycling scheme across the country so that packaging manufacturers could put clear instructions as to how best to recycle it I.e please wash this cup out and put it in the red bin. The easier we make it for the consumer the more they will recycle.
    Currently, recycling schemes can change from one tow to the next, causing confusion with people who live in one area and work in onouther.
    Let’s get this sorted out.

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