Is Costa’s new in-store coffee cup recycling scheme barking up the wrong tree?

Costa Coffee is launching a nationwide recycling scheme across over 2,000 stores in order to recover and recycle more of its takeaway cups, but only those that have been left in stores, sparking questions about whether the overuse of takeaway cups should be more closely addressed.

Is Costa’s new in-store coffee cup recycling scheme barking up the wrong tree?
Competitor takeaway cups will also be accepted in order to increase the number of cups recycled across the country, thereby reducing the amount taken to landfill.

Launching the scheme, the chains said that customers will be encouraged to leave or return their takeaway cups to a Costa store where they will be collected by waste management company Veolia, which will then transport them to specialist waste processing plants that have the capability to recycle takeaway coffee cups.

The difficulty in the recycling of coffee cups arises from their complex structure, which sees the paper cup bonded with a thin layer of plastic to make it waterproof. These two materials can only be separated during the recycling process using specialist technology only available at two plants in the UK.

Following a trial in over 45 stores across London and Manchester deemed ‘successful’ by Costa, it is rolling out the recycling racks at the end of January 2017 with the message ‘we recycle any paper takeaway cup, no matter what brand’. Research carried out by Costa in Manchester and London showed around 40 cups per day are left in stores, meaning, according to the company, that there is ‘the potential to recycle 30 million Costa cups a year’.

Although providing in-store bins targeted at the coffee cups for separate collection is sure to capture a large number of cups, it could be argued that the fact that so many takeaway cups are already left in stores suggest that they are too readily handed out.

The fact that the vast majority of takeaway coffee cups are, or should be, being used away from stores and the Costa bins, suggests that the cutting down of coffee cup waste should focus higher up the waste hierarchy.

Indeed, when asked by The Times, Costa admitted that only 14 per cent of the takeaway cups it issued during the trials had been recycled, and that the vast majority of the cups left in stores had been used by customers who could have been given their drinks in reusable china cups.

Jason Cotta, Managing Director of Costa, said: “As the UK’s largest coffee shop brand, with stores up and down the country, we want to make it as easy as possible for the public to recycle their used coffee cups. This will not be a trial. This is going to be business as usual.”

“We are committed to taking a lead and, like many others, we are working hard to find a cup that can be recycled anywhere. Whilst there is more work to do in partnership with the wider industry, we are excited to see the impact our new in-store recycling offer will have and hope it is embraced by everyone.”

Environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy said it is “delighted that Costa is rolling out a scheme to recycle coffee cups.” Allison Ogden-Newton, from the charity, said: "This is a fantastic move by Costa and one we welcome in the knowledge that it is sure to reduce waste and litter and so be of great benefit to us all."

Brands 'greenwashing' solutions?

In the UK, the issue of coffee cup waste has also been making headlines since March, following television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign to reduce packaging waste from early this year. His BBC series Hugh’s War on Waste revealed that an estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away in the UK every year, while just 0.25 per cent of them are recycled.

Since the programme aired, the coffee and packaging industry have been quick to publicise any development in solutions to the waste. However, Fearnley-Whittingstall has called a range of bin trials and temporary discounts for customers with reusable cups ‘greenwashing’.

The government last month ruled out a charge on coffee cups similar to that on plastic bags throughout the UK to great success, saying that work within the industry to improve the situation is well underway, and that coffee chains have taken the initiative with the development of a ‘Paper Cup Manifesto’, which pledges to increase recycling rates ‘significantly’ by 2020.

A charge would incentivise consumers to bring their own reusable cups to stores, and has the support of the Liberal Democrats, whose leader Tim Farron said: “It’s high time the government stepped in to reduce the amount of waste created each year. I want to see a culture shift towards bringing your own cup for a refill, rather than buying cups which are often non-recyclable and then throwing them away.”

However, the coffee and packaging industry would prefer to put their resources into developing a solution at the other end of the chain. In response to the government’s rejection of a charge, the Foodservice and Packaging Association (FPA) claimed that establishing a system for collecting cups and recycling them is more important than a tax.  

In keeping with this line of approach, a recycling scheme in partnership with environmental charity Hubbub is under way in Manchester this autumn and aims to save 20,000 cups from landfill and recycle. The new social experiment involved spreading eleven giant bins in the shape of coffee cups along one of Manchester’s busiest streets, Oxford Road, over three months.

Meanwhile, work has also been carried out to look at more recyclable cups that could be included with mainstream cardboard collections instead, such as the new paper cup designed by British company Frugalpac, which only has a thin plastic layer and claims to be recyclable in normal paper mills, is to be trialled by Starbucks in a bid to reduce waste.

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