Is this 'simply' the best way forward for disposal cups?

Written by: RWW | Published:

Disposable paper cups have long been a difficult waste stream to capture. Is the Simply Cups initiative a solution? David Burrows investigates.

To say that paper cups have provided a headache for foodservice companies, waste firms and local authorities is an understatement. Some two-and-a-half billion of them are used every year yet, according to some experts, none of them are recycled in the UK. Surprised? Consumers certainly would be. 

A survey by campaign group Which? a couple of years ago showed that eight in 10 people believe they can dispose of takeaway cups in paper and cardboard recycling facilities, though half throw them in the general waste anyway. 

And it’s not just coffee drinkers who are confused. Hardly a week goes by without a press release arriving from one catering company or another purporting to have ‘gone green’ by introducing compostable or biodegradable cups. 

This isn’t a bad idea, per se: companies like Vegware have produced cups lined with PLA (cornstarch) instead of plastic, which results in a “carbon saving of 51%” (the company’s own figure) and makes them fully compostable - provided there’s the infrastructure available and they end up in the right bin.

As Andrew Tolley, co-founder of Harris+Hoole and Taylor Street Baristas. told me recently: “If compostable cups end up in landfill then there’s no real benefit. At Harris+Hoole we use compostable because we see them as ‘the least evil’ option.”

Actually, that would be a reusable cup. 

Cool options

These haven’t yet quite taken off like the ‘bag for life’, but there are some pretty cool options now available. 

As James McKay, the founder of UpperCup, tells Caffeine Magazine: “We’re seeing some really positive awareness around reusing, but I believe that it really takes a product to come along that people love; that they love to use, that enhances their experience, and that represents their values and ideas to actually change and influence their behaviour. 

“I think no matter how much you beat people over the head about the concept, unless you create something that is truly great, people won’t use it,” he adds.

Of course, there’s a fair chance that, however great, people still won’t use it because of habit and convenience. Take your coffee in a reusable cup 15 times and you’re ‘greener’, but there’s a chance of losing it, dropping it and forgetting it (see box). 

Plus, it’s likely that there will still be a fair few million disposable cups to deal with. 

So, could a collaboration between a handful of innovative waste management and resource companies have finally found a solution?

Simply Cups is a partnership between Closed Loop Environmental Solutions and Simply Waste Solutions. 

Launched in August, it claims to be the first “robust scheme” available for the collection and recycling of disposable paper cups. 

Indeed, others have tried and failed: most notably Save-A-Cup. The problem was the technology. Paper cups are made of more than paper: they also contain 5% polyethylene in the form of a thin coating that’s fused to the paper, protecting it from the liquid. 

Separating the two is far from easy (there have been similar issues regarding the aluminium layers in Tetra Pak cartons). 

Breakthrough

But last year there was a breakthrough and two new specialist plants opened up that could take disposable cups, separate the materials and recycle them. In Stainland, near Halifax, there is the beverage carton recycling facility run by the Alliance for Beverage Cartons & the Environment (ACE UK) and paper and packaging producer Sonoco Alcore. 

Meanwhile, to the North West in Kendal, speciality paper maker James Cropper built a new cup recycling plant.

Matthew Miller, group innovation manager at James Cropper, explains how it took four years of development and £5m, but the investment was worth it given the quality of the material they knew was out there. 

The fibre in paper cups is “very high quality material” and perfect for the high spec paper the company manufactures. 

The issue had always been the plastic.

The new process being used at the plant, designed alongside paper and pulp supplier Kadant Lamort, involves pulping the cups in water, which separates the polyethylene layer from the paper fibre. The polyethylene is then skimmed off, leaving just the water and paper pulp. Impurities are then filtered out leaving high-grade pulp (80%), an ‘inking sludge’ (10%) and the plastic (10%). 

The sludge is used in agriculture as animal bedding or spreading on land, while the plastic was initially all sent to an energy from-waste plant. “Now we’re developing routes for it to be recycled into new polyethylene products,” Miller says. He has high hopes for the Simply Cups scheme. “The plant can take 10,000 tonnes a year and we’re at about five or six thousand so we’ve got the capacity for more post-consumer cup waste,” he explains.

Gaining momentum

Most of the five or six thousand tonnes of material passed through the plant is, at present, post industrial waste (making a paper cup results in a lot of offcuts). But there is little doubt that Simply Cups is gaining momentum. RWW reported last month that Huhtamaki and Solo Cup Europe were among the first partners, as well as catering company BaxterStorey, retailer John Lewis and facilities firm ISS. This month, Costa also came on board: it will provide rich pickings for Simply Cups at its concessions are dotted across single-occupancy commercial buildings. 

Indeed, the headquarters of big corporate businesses, where staff drink coffee like it’s going out of fashion and all the cups stay on site, will be the scheme’s bread and butter. Simply Waste Solutions MD James Capel says a number of new members will be announced soon to put the scheme on track to collect and recycle “at least three million cups a year”. 

That still leaves a fair few to target. And the big question is whether there can be a next stage: to tackle cups taken from the high street? Miller says this will require coordinated effort on a local scale. “Starbucks or Costa can’t solve this on their own,” he explains. “It needs to be an industry problem so there can be a collective approach.”

Peter Goodwin, director at Closed Loop, freely admits that the initiative “won’t solve the problem of paper cup recycling in the UK”. However, there is a sound business case and plenty of material about. 

“If you turn up at a waste company with 20 tonnes of paper cups, they won’t touch them with a bargepole. Councils [or companies] might take them away in the recycling, but they end up in landfill or in incinerators. 

“I’m pretty confident none of them are recycled here. We’ll succeed where others have failed because there are now two facilities available to take paper cups which are a classic multi-material product,” he adds.

Recycling disposable paper cups has never been easy. But thanks to innovation, decent investment and business sense, Simply Cups could have found a solution.


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