Resource Use

Potential solution to coffee cup waste by recycling into resin

Less than 0.25 per cent of the UK’s estimated three billion paper cups are recycled annually, but a new process could recycle ‘half of the annual volume of UK coffee cups’ into a resin, according to projections from the team behind the innovation.

NextCupCycleTM resin, developed by Nextek and AShortWalk, is made from whole coffee cups and can be moulded into a multitude of strong and durable products, a potential solution to recent calls for disposable paper cups to be more widely recycled.

The new recycling process removes the separation aspect – taking the plastic coating off the cups – simplifying a previously complex recycling method according to Dan Dicker, managing director of AShortWalk, an eco-product design and manufacturing company.

The new technology was launched last week in cooperation with Simply Cups (profiled in Resource) – previously the only company with the specialist facility to recycle single-use cups.

Dr Jonathan Mitchell of Nextek recycling consultancy, conducted this research at Imperial College over four years. Mitchell calculated that approximately 30,000 tonnes of disposable cups were thrown away every year in the UK, with less than 0.25 per cent ending up recycled by Simply Cups. Mitchell claims that the composition of the new resin is ‘much stronger than conventional plastics and can be readily moulded into products at high speeds’.

A professor from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College, Dr Chris Cheesman added: “Paper cups use very high-quality, very strong cellulose. So the flakes can turn a brittle and not especially tough plastic into something much tougher.

“This makes the material particularly suitable for turning into products where wood is still often used today.”

‘Nothing is truly recycled until it’s been physically reused’

Dicker said: “It’s easy to forget that nothing is truly recycled until it’s been physically reused. A solution like this that opens up wider product possibilities will create a far bigger demand for the recycled cups and close an economic as well as recycling loop.”

Edward Kosier, managing director of Nextek added: “We have used our expertise in polymer composites to develop innovate mixtures of the high quality paper fibres and plastic coatings and the occasional lid, spoon and straw into high strength composites that can be used in a wide range of building and consumer products.

“One recycling plant could recycle half of the annual volume of UK coffee cups creating many durable long-life products and displacing virgin materials.”

Hugh’s war on coffee cups

A campaign in March headed by celebrity TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted the problem of waste single-use coffee cups. Fearnley-Whittingstall took to the streets of London in a customised ‘coffee cup battle bus’ to confront Costa and Starbucks on their claims to having recyclable disposable cups.

In response to the chef’s actions, Resources Minister Rory Stewart suggested that a levy should be introduced for disposable cups, saying that after having tackled plastic bags ‘coffee cups seem to be a very good thing to look at next’. Despite Stewart’s comments, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that there were no plans to introduce a tax.