Resource Use

Disposable paper cup myths debunked

Waste management company Biffa brings attention to the fact that the raw materials from nearly 5 billion disposable paper cups are being wasted each year, equating to 1370 tonnes of paper fibre.

Disposable paper cupsIn the UK, It is estimated that we use between 2.5 to 5 billion disposable paper cups. However, only 1 in 400 are recycled. The recycling rate for disposable paper cups is, therefore, just 0.25 per cent, compared to the broader recycling rate for general paper and cardboard of 70.6 per cent.

The situation is down to what Roger Wright, Waste Strategy & Packaging Manager at Biffa, pegs as the ‘perfect storm’ of barriers to recycling. This being largely on account of the complexities involved in recycling takeaway cups and the need to separate the paper from the plastic coating requiring a specialist system for collection and processing. Also, the financial and environmental cost of processing the used cups is high as they are relatively bulky items with a lot of empty space, meaning more room is required to transport less material. Finally, they are ‘prone to contamination’, with lids, stirrers and sleeves being tossed alongside the cups, and the cups often being used as ‘mini bins’ to house other rubbish.

To bring attention to the problem, Roger Wright explores the common myths associated with disposable cups and recycling.  

Myth 1: All takeaway cups are the same

Single-use cups differ significantly depending on their intended use, which impacts how they need to be processed. Cups designed to hold hot liquid are made from strong virgin fibres to ensure structural integrity. Others - such as those designed to house beer, soft drinks or even takeaway soups or porridge - come with their own bespoke designs, coatings, specifications and labels. As a result, it is hard to set a blanket recommendation for their disposal, which leads to consumer confusion, wishcycling and ultimately contamination.

Myth 2: Takeaway cups are valuable to recyclers  

Wright asserts that, without a specialist system in place, cups are problematic for recyclers on account of their weight to volume ratio. The total recoverable value is limited, despite being made from costly virgin solid bleached sulphate (SBS-based fibre). Without being crushed or stacked, collection and processing becomes impractical and inefficient.

Myth 3: Takeaway cups are simple to recycle

 Many different types of coating are used to seal the disposable cups – Wright says that “it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart in most recycling systems if they don’t arrive at the recyclers properly segregated.” Without the presence of a dedicated digital technology, distinguishing one type of cup from another for separation at scale is difficult, making it hard to guarantee the quality of the recycled material.

Myth 4: Contaminated cups can still be recycled 

 Wright is at pains to clarify that contamination is the biggest issue with cup recycling, and that cups with lids and sleeves attached should be considered contaminated and not recyclable in this state. The ‘mini bin’ phenomena is particularly problematic, with consumers often using the cups to dispose of items such as tea bags, banana peels, apple cores, crisp packets and used tissues.

Summary

Looking to the future, Wright points to reuse systems and increasing the consistency of materials used as ways to reduce waste from disposable paper cups.

In the shorter term, Wright suggests that collaboration is key, with businesses, consumers and waste management companies working together via takeback schemes that provide a specialist system to make collections and processing cost and carbon efficient.

Wright clarifies that 100 per cent of a polyethylene lined cup can now be recycled through Biffa's coffee cup takeback system, with the paper fibre going on to make new packaging and the polyethylene lining separated and processed into pellets.

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