Creating Waste That’s “Good On Paper”

With applications for The Cup Fund, the UK’s largest grant for projects that boost UK paper cup recycling, closing soon, Richard Burnett from James Cropper explains why focusing on infrastructure over redesign is the best solution to the disposable coffee cup problem right now.

Since the media attention fell hard and fast onto single-use coffee cups and the waste problem they present, the race to create a new cup design that ticks all of the environmental and recycling boxes has been on between manufacturers.

How do you create a cup with multiple end of life options, that does not contaminate downstream processing, whether that be in home composting, kerbside collection or on-the-go disposal? The challenge is a hefty one. 

The reason that coffee cups were difficult to recycle is because they contain a plastic lining which makes the cup waterproof, but which was tough to separate from the paper fibre of the cup itself.

However, since James Cropper introduced the world’s first technology to turn used coffee cups into beautiful paper and packaging, the technological barrier to recycling coffee cups has become a thing of the past. To date more than 60 million cups have been given a second lease of life at our CupCycling plant.

Establishing the network to collect and process them ready to be recycled at a plant like ours was and is the big challenge, and with the capacity to upcycle 500 million cups every year we can really make a big difference!

With the process available to recycle cups and others creating similar solutions, the real challenge (or opportunity from some perspectives) for creating value from waste coffee cups was highlighted – infrastructure.

Establishing the network to collect and process them ready to be recycled at a plant like ours was and is the big challenge, and with the capacity to upcycle 500 million cups every year we can really make a big difference! 

Being at the cutting edge in cup recycling, we have helped build the UK infrastructure for waste cups but there is still a way to go.  Collaboration has been key in creating fantastic inroads with a variety of waste management companies.  

We have also been involved at the inception of a number of cup recycling schemes in retail with partners such as Costa and McDonald’s, transport hub collections and on-the-go initiatives such as the #LeedsbyExample collaboration. 

Most recently, we are supporting The Cup Fund from Hubbub and Starbucks, and are endorsing the project as one of the key recycling mills. The Cup Fund is aimed at any organisation or local authority with the potential for large scale cup collection – and will result in the development of 10 new cup recycling schemes across the UK to really boost cup recycling.

In the background to all of this, a number of alternatives to the original polyethylene lining on coffee cups are becoming available. However, there is no alternative solution out there just yet that works with the current recycling infrastructure in place. 

That’s not to say that redesigning the coffee cup should be ignored, but in order to really make a dent in the billions of cups that go to waste, the entire supply chain needs to collaborate on design for circularity.….and until we get there we should continue to develop the infrastructure already in place to deal with the current product design that can be easily recycled.

What we must remind ourselves is that there is a difference between what is recyclable and what is recycled. We need to train our eye keenly on creating scalable solutions that are not confusing to the end user.We are always willing to work in partnership.  

Giving our expert advice and sharing our experience has helped to get schemes off the ground and transform coffee cups from waste into something useful through the solutions we already have available.  

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