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Their cups runneth over

If you think your paper coffee and tea cups are currently being recycled, think again.

The stark truth is that the estimated 2.5 billion paper cups used in the UK each year for people’s caffeine fix have been sent to general waste where they are either landfilled or incinerated. This might come as a surprise to a confused public; a 2011 Which? report found that eight in 10 people thought that cups were already being recycled.

On 1 August, a new scheme called Simply Cups was launched, a partnership between Closed Loop Environmental Solutions (CLES) and Simply Waste Solutions. It provides a cost-efficient collection and recycling service for the UK’s paper cup manufacturers, organisations operating in the supply chain and beverage and hospitality outlets that will reduce their operating costs and improve their environmental credentials. 

Simply cups

Already signed up to the scheme are the John Lewis Partnership, catering and facilities management companies BaxterStorey and ISS Facility Services, and cup manufacturers Huhtamaki and Solo Cup Europe. Also committed are prominent industry associations and environmental charities including WRAP, the Automated Vending Association and Keep Britain Tidy. It means there is now a robust scheme in place for companies to address the increasingly difficult issue of cup recycling.

To put some numbers on the issue, there are a staggering 500 billion disposable paper cups manufactured every year around the world. This equates to around 75 cups for every single person on the planet. So why, when other types of food packaging have made great strides to improve recycling, has the simple paper cup lagged behind?

Such cups are extremely well designed to maintain the integrity of the structure even when filled with liquid. To achieve this, a thin layer of polyethylene is bonded to the virgin paper to keep the liquid in the cup and stop the rest of the material getting soggy. And it is the separation of the polyethylene film from the paper that has troubled paper recycling plants in the past, meaning that the only solution was to send them to landfill or for energy from waste.

The beginning of the realisation that there was a huge gap in the market was when CLES was asked to conduct a waste audit for Heathrow Airport in 2013 ( in order to better understand the composition of its wastes and the potential resale value from extracting recyclable material.

The two-month process inspected the airport’s waste at a granular level, and showed that more than half of all the waste was recyclable, including up to 60% of cabin waste. As a result, CLES estimated that the recoverable resources could reduce the costs of waste disposal by more than £100,000 a year.

What the audit also brought into sharp focus was the fact that the thousands of papers cups, generated by the cafés and restaurants within the airport and offloaded from aircraft cabins could not be processed, at that time, by any paper recycling plant in the UK.

As Mark Robertson, waste and environment manager of Heathrow Airport, explained: “We serve more than 30,000 cups of coffee a day and the same number of cups of tea, mostly in paper cups. Overall, cups make up around 1% of the annual Heath row waste stream – this is 80 tonnes of potential recycling for us.”

For CLES, seeing the huge bulk of paper cups going to incineration indicated that it must also be a huge issue for the entire drinks and catering industry. So it started thinking that, if a recycling solution was available, there could be huge opportunities to recover a great deal of high-quality fibre that was otherwise being lost.

In fact, a scheme had already been set up under the banner of ‘Save-a Cup’, established by the vending, food service and plastics industries as a not-for-profit company back in 1990, running until the end of 2010. Although the scheme was originally established to recover plastic cups, it was also beginning to trial collections of paper cups.  

But the scheme was beset with a number of issues, including the lack of a robust recovery infrastructure and reprocessing facilities in the UK, which ultimately meant that the scheme became uneconomical and was forced to close.

However, the recycling landscape was changed in 2013 when two specialist plants opened that could separate the film from the paper, thereby allowing material recovery and recycling.

In July 2013, James Cropper’s cup recycling plant, in Kendal, Cumbria, was opened by the Queen and, later in September that year, the UK’s first beverage carton recycling facility – that is also capable of recycling paper cups – was opened in Stainland, West Yorkshire. The latter is a joint initiative between the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK) and paper and packaging producer Sonoco Alcore.

Between the two plants, there will be enough capacity to process all the collected cups in the early days of the scheme, although the ambition is to assess the feasibility of a London-based facility to cope with future demand.

The process first involves pulping the cup in water, which separates the polyethylene layer from the paper fibre. The polyethylene is skimmed off, leaving just water and paper pulp. Impurities are then filtered out, leaving high-grade pulp suitable for a variety of uses, from luxury papers to robust packaging.

Cup recycling

CLES and Simply Waste knew, by combining forces, they could solve a problem that had been around for years. CLES could administer the scheme and had experience in creating markets for post-consumer materials, while Simply Waste had existing operational infrastructure. Combined with the two processing facilities that were crying out for material, the new partnership knew it would have the makings of a robust service that would be economically viable from launch and which would be called Simply Cups.

The scheme will initially focus on locations where cups can be easily controlled and therefore collected. This means that offices, airports, shopping centres, motorway service stations and even events are an ideal starting point.

By spring 2014, all the details, including logistics, operational responsibilities, pricing and cost of membership, had been hammered out, and Simply Cups was able to start approaching potential customers. It was important from the outset that we were completely transparent about all aspects of the service. We were also adamant that it must be run as a membership, even for existing customers of CLES or Simply Waste.

Cup product

Once we had convinced potential customers about the overall benefits of membership, they were eager to put pen to paper. What they quickly realised was that our programme could help save them money and resolve a problem that has been decades old.

So how will the service work? The first step is for an organisation to join the scheme. Anyone who has an interest in cup recycling can be a member. The costs of membership are tiered higher for those who benefit the most, meaning that cup manufacturers, caterers, beverage producers and corporates will pay a higher fee than bin manufacturers, industry associations, charities and action groups.

Once signed up, the member receives a welcome pack and access to the members’ area of the website which includes downloadable help guides, artwork, signage and steps to organise a launch event. Simply Waste provides special collection bags, and all the customer has to do is fill them and make them available for the weekly collections.™

But while bags are likely to form the basis of the service for most customers, Simply Cups can offer a ‘layered solution’ to meet the needs of the clients where large volumes prevail. Simply Waste trucks will then collect the bags and consolidate them, before moving them to, in the near term at least, either the ACE UK/Sonoco Alcore or James Cropper plants for processing.

Although there are no set targets, it would not be surprising if Simply Cups collected more than three million cups a year – a number that could easily double as more and more potential members approach it.

Peter Goodwin is director of Closed Loop Environmental Services and James Capel is managing director of Simply Waste Solutions

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