In defence of disposable cups

The UK has a cup waste problem, but bans and levys are not the answer.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 17 Apr 2018

Coffee cups are big for UK business. Cup manufacturing employs 1,700 people and contributes a major part to a coffee industry that is worth £9 billion to the UK economy.

So Waitrose’s announcement that it is planning to have removed the use of all disposable coffee cups in its stores by autumn this year might just have caused those within the industry to well... spit out their coffee.

The retailer says the move to remove the offer of free cups to participants in the MyWaitrose loyalty scheme is expected to save at least 52 million cups a year.

Of course this represents just one small part of Waitrose’s overall business - after all, they are unlikely to lose out by cutting a product that they have previously been giving away for free - but it highlights the growing concerted effort to crack down on the UK’s use of disposable coffee cups. And one that could have a major impact on UK industry if it is more widely adopted.

Of course this is not to say that there isn't a problem  - it is estimated that the UK consumer uses 2.5 billion disposable cups annually (although it may be far more), and causes 30,000 tons of coffee cup waste each year.

We clearly need to find a solution, but is a complete ban or even a latte levy really the best way? Unsurprisingly the people making the cups don't think so.

A ban will damage the industry

‘When you get a move to reduce the number of paper cups, inevitably that has to have an impact on employment,’ says Martin Kersh, Executive Director of the Foodservice Packaging Association.

While some jobs would be hit, he notes that for the majority of packing manufactures, cup production represents only one arm of their business, so they may choose to concentrate on other areas of packaging manufacture.

He suggests instead a larger impact could be seen on the high street, believing that by removing the impulse purchasing diposable cups provide the consumer they will buy less.

'The paper cup itself has helped to create an industry that employs 300-400,000 people. So it does provide a social force for good and we know that the existence of coffee shops on the high street can help to generate traffic for retailers. Why do we want to sabotage that?’

So what is the alternative?

Potential suggestions often involve a more widespread adoption of reusable cups or perhaps a latte levy - but those in the industry are keen to emphasise that recycling is the most valuable way to deal with cups and are making significant moves towards making it easier.

Adrian Pratt, Chair of the Automatic Vending Association cup committee and head of marketing at Benders Paper Cups believes that British businesses and the general public receive very little information about how to correctly dispose of their cup ways that mean it can be recycled.

‘One of the myths that is out there is the suspicion that the Polyethylene (PE) coating is a contaminant, it is not,’ says Pratt noting that PE lined disposable cups can be recycled at least seven times if they are properly segregated from other waste products.

‘We have the facilities and infrastructure to deal with the entire cup volume in the marketplace,’ highlighting paper mills like Cumbria’s James Cropper Plc which recycles cups to make packaging for Selfridges.

Despite having the capacity, over 99% of disposable cups are not recycled. ‘Our bigger hurdle is getting enough cups to them,’ says Pratt.

One hurdle has been the ‘contamination’  that occurs once coffee cups have been mixed with other waste, something caused by the lack of infrastructure that allows people to segregate cups from other rubbish.

Pratt is keen to stress that this is an issue that those within the industry have been working to find a solution for some time.

The best example is perhaps the Paper Cup Recycling and Recovery Group (PCRRG), a body made up of cup manufacturers, waste operators and coffee retailers, including Cafe Nero, Huhtamaki and Grundon. Having been formed in 2016, the group aims to increase awareneess and improve the processes behind cup recycling.

The PCRRG has recently signed an agreement with The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) to integrate cup collection into their processes. ACE currently has national network where their beverage cartons are collected in 92% of local authorities across the country - 27% of these are in bring bank facilities where consumers bring cartons to be collected.

Other suggestions could involve the building of high street coffee cup banks.

Kersh suggests that one potential funding source could be a reform of the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN system to ensure that the money paid into it goes directly to improving waste collection and recycling facilities. PRNs are documents a manufacturer is required to buy as evidence that its material has been recycled. A government enquiry is currently underway with the view to reform the PRN system.

It is a complicated issue and clearly there is no simple solution - but one may emerge over the next year as greater consultation between government and industry groups continues.

Businesses have a role to play

But while we’re waiting for it all to pan out, businesses can play a greater role in ensuring more cups are recycled.

‘If you have got somewhere people come into work and bring their coffee cups, there is no reason why they can't look into setting something up within their own business,’ says Neil Whittall, PCRRG Chair.

He suggests that businesses should speak to their waste operators about how their coffee cups can be collected and highlights that companies like Simply Cups - which work with organisations to come up with solutions to effectively recycle cup waste - can also help.

'We've started to create this infrastructure,' says Whittall. 'Now we've got to get the enegagement of all different types of businesses.'

Image Credit: Alexander Weickart/Shutterstock

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