Resource Use

Costa to recycle 500 million coffee cups by 2020

Costa to recycle half a million coffee cups by 2020

Costa has announced plans to recycle up to 500 million disposable coffee cups a year by 2020, the same amount used annually by its customers.

The UK’s largest coffee chain, Costa will be subsidising waste collection companies Veolia, Biffa, Suez, Grundon and First Mile to the tune of £70 per tonne of takeaway cups collected, with the aim of raising the value of the items and providing an incentive for their recycling.

Currently, around 2.5 billion disposable cups are used in the UK every year, and only 0.25 per cent of this waste is recycled, due in part to the lack of facilities able to process the mixed material cups made up of paper with a plastic lining. The resulting lower demand for coffee cups on the recycling market has reduced their value, making it more financially attractive for waste collectors to focus on more easily recyclable material like paper and card.

However, there are plants with the capability to recycle coffee cups – packaging company DS Smith announced in March that it believes it can process all of the UK’s coffee cup waste at its Kemsley paper mill in Kent, the result of industrial-scale research. Peter Clayson, General Manager of Business Development and External Affairs, explained: “During the trial we recycled 40 tonnes of coffee cups – more than four million individual cups. These cups were blended in controlled conditions, at a variety of trial ratios, with pure recycled paper grades – producing approximately 3.5bn square metres of paper that met our stringent quality standards.”

Despite its capacity for recycling the cups, DS Smith stated that the UK’s collection infrastructure needed significant improvement before the company would be able to achieve its goal. Coffee cups are used on-the-go, in consumer hubs like train stations and shopping centres, but collection points are few and far between and more often than not the cups end up in residual waste bins.

Now, it is hoped that with the funding from Costa making it more financially viable for companies to collect coffee cups, there will be an associated increase in investment in collection infrastructure, ensuring that more cups are able to be recycled at the Kemsley mill as well as at the other UK facilities able to process the items, run by James Cropper and ACE UK.

DS Smith proposes UK coffee cup waste solutionCosta to recycle half a million coffee cups by 2020
Coffee cup recycling at DS Smith's Kemsley paper mill

Clayson commented: “We challenged government, collectors, recyclers, and coffee retailers to collaborate to deliver the collection infrastructure needed to help correctly segregate and collect coffee cups for recycling. This voluntary initiative by Costa is a great example of that, helping to provide the financial investment needed to support better on-the-go recycling.”

This year alone, it is predicted 100 million cups will be recycled as a result of the scheme, which will be overseen and audited by environmental compliance provider ValPak to ensure that targets are met.

Dominic Paul, Costa’s Managing Director, said: “It dispels the myth that coffee cups can’t be recycled. By creating a market for cups as a valuable recyclable material, we are confident that we can transform the UK’s ineffective and inconsistent ‘binfrastructure’ to ensure hundreds of millions of cups get recycled every year… If the nation’s other coffee chains sign up, there is no reason why all takeaway cups could not be recycled by as early as 2020.”

‘Plastic-lined lunacy’

Voluntary initiatives by producers, retailers and processors are making strides towards improving the UK’s record on disposable cups, with a number of businesses focusing on ways to reduce consumption. Supermarket Waitrose has recently announced it will be banning the single-use items from all its stores, which it says will save 52 million cups from being thrown away every year, while a number of coffee shops are offering discounts to customers with reusable alternatives. Responding to studies showing that charges are more effective than discounts for changing customer behaviour, Starbucks is currently trialling a five pence charge in 35 stores across London.

However, there are calls for the government to take a more hands-on legislative approach to the problem, with Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) recommending a 25 pence charge to be enforced in a similar manner to the plastic bag levy. The government has so far resisted, content to encourage voluntary action, though with the recent announcement of a potential ban on plastic straws and cotton buds in England, it does appear to be endorsing a more interventionist policy on disposable packaging waste. It will be examining the concept of coffee cup charges as part of a Treasury consultation into how the tax system could be used to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics.

The EAC has also called for the introduction of a specific target for coffee cup recycling, with all cups disposed of in recycling bins to be recycled by 2023, as well as reform of the UK’s producer responsibility system to raise the cost for producers on cups that are hard to recycle, incentivising the use of more easily recycled materials.

Meanwhile, anti-plastics campaigners, while recognising the measures taken to improve coffee cup recycling, remain sceptical following Costa’s announcement. A Plastic Planet Co-Founder Sian Sutherland commented: "It's positive that Costa Coffee is taking measures to address the environmental impact of its business. But this pledge is unlikely to do much to halt the lunacy of plastic-lined coffee cup waste.

"No matter how many times the containers are recycled, the vast majority of plastic-lined coffee cups will end up in the environment sooner or later. The UK throws away 2.5 billion coffee cups every year, and many of these find their way into the ocean. The cups' plastic lining ensure they will remain on the earth for centuries. It's bonkers.

"The answer then is simple. We have to turn off the plastic tap. This means using 100% plastic-free coffee cups. It is not beyond the wit of man to make a coffee cup from fully-compostable materials with the infrastructure to actually compost it. We need to stop looking at every issue in a silo - it is all connected - packaging, waste management, our oceans and our soil . A plastic recycling revolution won't cure our pollution problem, but a plastic-free holistic one just might."

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