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Industry figures quizzed by MPs over cup recycling

MPs on the Environment Audit Committee have grilled representatives from packaging over the recycling record of disposable paper cups.

The session, which took place on 10 October at Westminster’s Portcullis House, heard how cup manufacturers, retailers and waste management organisations were collaborating to improve recycling rates from their current 1%. The Environment Committee reopened its inquiry into litter and single use packaging this month.

However, the committee heard that the industry would be resistant to a ban on cups that were not recyclable and to a tax on disposable cups, even if the money raised would be invested into recycling infrastructure.

“We have seven million coffee cups thrown away each day,” said the committee’s chair, Mary Creagh MP (Labour). “Has the industry been sitting tight [on its recycling record] and hoping no one would notice?”

Neil Whittall, chair of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group, argued that the industry has been collaborating across the supply chain with progress being made. He pointed to the publication of the Paper Cup Manifesto, which commits to ensure that by 2020, the majority of the UK population would have access to information schemes and facilities that enable used paper cups can be recovered and recycled.

Coffee chain Costa rolled out a recycling scheme in 2,000 of its UK stores in February. The scheme promises to recycle any cup regardless of brand. Oliver Rosevear, energy and environment manager at Costa Coffee, told the committee that nine million cups had been recycled to date and it was aiming to have 15 million recycled by the end of the year.

But the committee felt the numbers were low and the industry was not moving quickly enough. Zac Goldsmith MP (Conservative) floated the idea of banning cups that weren’t recyclable.

He said: “If we can have a cheap, recyclable alternative, should we take a bolder approach? Should there be a blanket ban on coffee cups that cannot be recycled?”

Caroline Lucas MP (Green) added: “Infrastructure is going to cost. We have three facilities so far [that specialise in paper cup recycling] and we need to find the funding from somewhere. If a tax on cups was used to improve infrastructure then would you be against it?”

Whitall responded that as an organisation, the PCRRG was against any charges on cups and that the public wanted to see the appropriate infrastructure in place. Martin Kersh, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, added that there needed to be reform to the Packaging Recovery Notes (PRN) system. Such a move could bring in more money to invest in recycling infrastructure.

Kersh added: “We would contest that this should not be restricted to individual packaging but for all packaging on the go. The issue is not so much micro but attacking it on a bigger scale. We need to look at alternative ways to restructure the PRN system.”

Martin Myerscough, founder and chief executive of Frugalpac, told the committee he believed the problem was not down to infrastructure or consumer behaviour but the cup itself. He said he believed his company’s paper cup addressed the problems, being made from recycled paper and containing a thin layer of plastic film that can be separated from the cup.

He said the company was completing its first high speed run on production of its cups with the capability of producing 50 to 70 million cups a year.

Myerscough added: “The industry has a zero tolerance [of contamination]. But you see quite a lot of contamination in packaging like pizza boxes. This is a small issue that’s been exaggerated.

“The cup is the issue. Do not beat up the councils. Do not tax the consumer as they want to recycle. I got fed up because everyone was blaming everyone else.”

Rosevear said: “Our issue is around infrastructure. It’s not being recycled on the general street. We take our responsibilities on that but not everyone is aware how they can recycle it. There are some encouraging signs. The inner liner is a barrier but not as big a barrier as previously thought. James Cropper’s recycling of cups shows it can be done. It’s about infrastructure and consumer engagement.”

“If there was a simple solution then the industry would have done it,” said Martin Kersh, executive director at the Foodservice Packaging Association. “We are not luddites. The key thing is scale. Any new cup would have to be produced to high levels of quality.”

The committee also gathered evidence on reusable packaging. Costa currently donates 25p to litter charities every time a customer uses a reusable cup in a Costa store. However, Lucas claimed there was a lack of publicity around the scheme and that she would choose a coffee shop that encouraged reusable cups if it was made clear.

“Reusable cups is the best environmental option,” she added.

On-pack labelling was also criticised, with committee member Anna McMorirn MP (Labour) saying recycling claims on cups were misleading. Richard McIlwain, deputy chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy, said there was more work to be done in this area.

Wouter Poortinga, professor of environmental psychology at the Welsh School of Architecture, claimed that better labelling did not mean recycling rates would go up.

Gavin Ellis, co-founder of charity Hubbub, highlighted to the committee trials carried out in Manchester and London. The projects were designed to “nudge” consumer behaviour to place cups in the appropriate bins. Over three months in Manchester, 21,000 cups were recycled from one street alone. London’s Square Mile Challenge recycled 508,000 cups in one month.

  • This story first appeared in our sister publication, Packaging News

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