Fearnley-Whittingstall rails against coffee chain ‘greenwashing’

Celebrity chef and waste campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has accused brands of ‘greenwashing’ responses to the burning issue of coffee cup waste, criticising in particular a campaign to increase high street recycling of takeaway cups.

Fearnley-Whittingstall rails against coffee chain ‘greenwashing’
The #OneMoreShot campaign
The television chef was voted to top spot in last year’s Resource Hot 100 for his work to raise awareness on supermarket food waste with his BBC series Hugh’s War on Waste and earlier this year returned for a follow-up programme looking primarily at the waste generated by hard-to-recycle takeaway coffee cups.

The programme made national headlines by revealing that an estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away in the UK every year, the equivalent of 5,000 cups being thrown away per minute, or seven million a day. In addition, Fearnley-Whittingstall said that just 0.25 per cent of them are recycled.

Appearing on BBC One’s The One Show on Thursday (20 October) to promote a new programme on the ivory trade, Fearnley-Whittingstall was asked to give an update on the coffee cup issue. Presented with cups from major high street coffee chains, he was asked to put them in order of how proactive they have been in the months since he first started campaigning.

“It would be lovely to pick out a clear winner but what happens often, the corporate response to these things where people start to say this isn’t good enough and the public says we want change, is they do a trial.”

Since his campaign first made national headlines in March when he travelled around London in a bus papered with 10,000 cups, the number thrown away in the UK every two minutes, to highlight misleading claims of sustainability among the three leading chains, a number of initiatives have been launched or piloted to test solutions to the problem.

One, a trial recycling scheme led by behaviour change charity Hubbub, began earlier this month in Manchester to see if special on-street bins could contribute to greater recycling rates for coffee cups.

In partnership with Manchester City Council and high street retailers, the #1MoreShot campaign has seen 11 bins shaped like giant coffee cups placed along one of the city’s busiest roads for three months.

Hubbub says that it hopes to collect 20,000 cups during the campaign and, working with plastic recycling consultancy Nextek, it will see them diverted from landfill and recycled into a resin that can be used to make a number of products. If it is a success, the charity claims to have a number of local authorities interested in expanding the scheme across the UK.

Fearnley-Whittingstall rails against coffee chain ‘greenwashing’
Fearnley-Whittingstall sweeps aside the cups of brands he says are greenwashing responses to waste issues

However, Fearnley-Whittingstall did not accept the campaign’s motives and told the teatime show that it was merely a way for the retailers to suggest they were taking action.

He said: “So these guys are trialling…. There’s one street in Manchester with 11 extra bins in, trying to gather all the cups – Starbucks are not taking part, maybe they’re doing something else – to me that is a greenwash corporate response. ‘We’re trialling some recycling in Manchester, we’ll get back to you in a year or 18 months’. But until I see one of these big companies brandishing a properly recyclable coffee cup…” He then threw the assembled cups onto the floor.

New solutions being developed

The issues with recycling coffee cups are based around their complex structure. To make them waterproof, a layer of plastic is bonded tightly to the paper prior to assembly, meaning that during the recycling process, the two materials cannot be separated unless through specialist technology. Simply Cups is the only plant in the UK to recycle the cups and handles less than six million a year, representing less than 0.25 per cent of the number used across the country.

Since the problem gained public attention, responses to it have varied between looking at ways to increase collection, such as this trial with prominent cup-only bins, and reducing the use of disposable cups, with a levy similar to the carrier bag charge suggested and then shot down by Defra and a discount for Starbucks customers bringing their own reusable cup briefly trialled.

Other solutions have also been highlighted, with the resin developed by Nextek and design agency AShortWalk removing the need for separation by using the whole cup to create a resin ‘much stronger than conventional plastics [that] can be readily moulded into products at high speeds’.

A new cup that only adds a thin plastic layer to the fully assembled cup, developed by Frugalpac, has also been launched in recent months. The company claims that the cup can be recycled in the paper stream and treated at standard paper mills, where the plastic layer would be separated during the process, and Starbucks has said that it would be interested in trialling the new cup to see if it meets the company’s standards for safety and quality.

Industry-wide, prior to the airing of Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme in June, a partnership of businesses, retailers and suppliers launched ‘The Paper Cup Manifesto’, a voluntary agreement being funded by its members to increase the recovery and recycling of disposable cups by 2020.

Fearnley-Whittingstall’s appearance on The One Show can be viewed by UK residents on the BBC iPlayer until 19 November.

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