It is estimated that 2.5 billion throwaway coffee cups are used in the UK every year by consumers buying coffee from chains and cafes with up to seven million coffee cups being thrown away every day. The main challenge to date has been the plastic film lining within the paper cups which has created approximately 25,000 tonnes of waste. This means that the cups are rarely recyclable in normal depots and have to be put in special bins which are then sent to a dedicated recycling mill.

With less than 1% of these cups thought to be recycled, coffee chains have started their own in-house initiatives to encourage customers to reduce waste. Dedicated bins were introduced in Starbucks last year for cup recycling and many stores opt for discounts when customers bring in their own reusable cup. Most recently, Pret a Manger have doubled the discount they initially offered on a beverage. The chain will now offer a 50p discount on hot drinks after the company introduced the measure, with CEO Clive Schlee saying he hoped that doubling the discount would make a difference; the move follows other initiatives to reduce waste such as not using plastic cup stoppers in inner-city Pret shops.

One unlikely pairing in the effort to reduce beverage packaging waste has come in the form of paper manufacturer James Cropper teaming up with department store Selfridges. The company is going to reprocess disposable coffee cups collected by Veolia to create the retailer’s yellow shopping bags in a completely unique closed-loop recycling solution.

Once used, disposable cups from the department stores food hall and offices will be ‘tipped, flipped and stacked’ – a process to ensure any remaining liquid is drained and the lid, sleeve and cup are separated. Veolia then undertakes a further separation process to guarantee all rogue items have been removed. The cups are checked for quality, then baled and delivered to James Cropper for reprocessing at its CupCycling plant.

Problematic materials: separating the components

The disposable cups will be upcycled into paper that will then be converted into the yellow shopping bags, with the final product containing 20% cup fibre, meaning one large bag will contain the equivalent of one eight-ounce cup. The remaining paper fibre will continue to be PEFC certified. The bags will display the CupCycling logo, verifying that the waste fibre has been processed through James Cropper’s facility, and after use will be able to be recycled in the standard paper waste stream.

Up until recently, most coffee cups were unable to be recycled due to their polyethylene lining; however, the James Cropper facility possesses the technology to separate the two components. The paper fibre is rescued and turned into luxury papers and the polyethylene is recycled into products such as plastic tubing and cable wraps.

Selfridges director of retail projects and FM Chris Brant said: “As part of our ‘Buying Better, Inspiring Change’ approach, we are constantly looking for new ways to make our business more efficient. One way we’re doing this is by reducing the amount of single use plastics we use. In 2015, as part of our Project Ocean campaign with the Zoological Society of London, we removed plastic carrier bags, microbeads from our beauty hall and single-use plastic cups and bottles from our stores and back of house. As we are already at zero waste to landfill, we are looking at further innovative ways to capture and treat recyclable materials.” Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

Closing a loop: tackling global waste issues

The partnership between James Cropper, Veolia and Selfridges marks a world first for recycling and demonstrates the wide variety of uses that excess packaging can have. “With our partners James Cropper and Veolia, we can take coffee cups, a waste product of ours, and transform them into our yellow kraft bags, thereby closing the loop on that particular waste stream. Not only that, but the bags can still be recycled for years to come. We’re proud to be the first retailer to upcycle our cups in this way. Our customers are becoming ever more aware of global waste issues and I think they will appreciate the story behind the bag” explains Brant.

James Cropper managing director Steve Adams said: “The fibre used to create paper cups is very high quality as only ‘virgin’ pulp is used to satisfy food contact requirements. Seeing this go to waste on such a huge scale is what inspired us to develop the technology to separate the two components. What we’re left with is material that’s virtually indistinguishable from fresh fibre and can therefore be used to create paper products of the highest quality, such as Selfridges’ bags. Our plant has so far recycled more than six million used cups – a figure that with partnerships like those with Selfridges, Veolia and others is expected to continue to rise. And we’re more than prepared to cope with such a boom, with the plant currently having the capacity to recycle 500 million paper cups each year. With CupCycling™, we’re enabling brands to work with us towards a world that’s less wasteful and become part of a movement that has the potential to revolutionise paper cup recycling forever.”

Key roles: mass collaboration to improve the circular economy

The initiative has received positive feedback and the industry hopes that this could encourage further partnerships in the future. Veolia UK chief operating officer of public and commercial Gavin Graveson said: “This is a great example to show how coffee cups are being reused as part of the circular economy. I’d like to take this opportunity to further encourage a mass collaboration between designers, manufacturers, vendors and consumers as we all have a part to play in making all of our packaging more environmentally friendly and ensuring our resources are kept in the loop for longer.”

At the core of the collaboration is sustainability. James Cropper luxury packaging director Susan Wilson said: “Fashions may come and go, but a sense of style is forever. Similarly, we believe sustainability is more than a passing trend. This installation is about championing creativity with longevity – supported by the right mix of innovative and authentic production methods that respect the environment.”