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The problem with coffee cup recycling is the beginning not the end

While paper cup recycling has become very topical in the past few days, Simply Cups has been working collaboratively across the supply chain for almost two years to find a transparent and sustainable long-term solution to the issue that less than 1% of the UK’s discarded paper cups are being recycled.

What is now apparent is that the application of the recycling symbol on a product (from whatever industry) bears no guarantee that a product – while it is recyclable – is actually going to be recycled. At best, we believe that this may undermine confidence and create scepticism in what brands are trying to communicate to their consumers and, at worst, render the recycling logo worthless.

Consumers are not being deliberately misled about why their used cups and cartons end up on a rubbish heap rather than made into second-life materials. Indeed, the lack of effective recycling will have surprised many brands and companies in the supply chain, which have historically passed the problem back down the line, without necessarily asking what really is happening to their waste.

While the waste industry is often criticised for its inability to provide solutions for every waste stream, it should not be its responsibility alone to solve the problem nor is it acceptable to lay the blame wholly at its door.

Product stewardship means it is the responsibility of everyone along the supply chain – producers, users and brands – to ensure that the waste industry has the ability to extract the economic value it needs for a commercially viable solution. It is now evident that brands can no longer use the recycling symbol as a defence mechanism to absolve responsibility but, instead, they should be engaging and collaborating with others in the supply chain to come up with workable solutions to tackle material segregation, collection and reprocessing.

But this can only happen if the waste industry adopts a similar approach to engagement, ensuring that we have full collaboration across the entire product life cycle.

The hardest part of recycling is not the logistics to collect the material, nor the technology needed to perform the task but, rather, how to extract the value from waste once it has been (almost inevitably) contaminated. This is why Simply Cups works so hard with its customers to help them segregate the material at source, ensuring that it retains its value and continually making it commercially viable to recover and recycle.

Simply Cups became a viable proposition with the emergence of two paper cup recycling facilities in the UK, each with the capability to separate the plastic lining from fibre. Nevertheless, cups still need to be provided to these plants in an appropriate form and free from contamination.

We have been actively promoting our cup recycling solution for almost two years and the publicity it has generated, together with the recent ‘war on waste’ activity, means there is now no excuse for anyone not to be aware of the problem.

The real question that needs to be asked is just how committed everyone is to dealing with this issue and is there sufficient consumer demand to disrupt the status quo? Viable solutions are already available and so we would urge producers, users and brands to engage with us as soon as possible and take positive action.

Simply Cups has set a target of recycling six million cups by the end of 2016. This is tiny in comparison with the total number of cups in circulation and the ambitions must, therefore, reach much higher.

Peter Goodwin is co-founder of Simply Cups

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