Hugh's War on Waste: The battle continues with coffee cup recycling in the spotlight

Celebrity chef-turned-eco-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is reigniting his 'War on Waste' TV series this week, with attention shifting from food waste to coffee cup recycling.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall heads out in his ‘battle bus’ to raise the issue of coffee cup recycling to the public, claiming less than 1% of discarded cups are actually recycled

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall heads out in his ‘battle bus’ to raise the issue of coffee cup recycling to the public, claiming less than 1% of discarded cups are actually recycled

Hugh’s War on Waste returns to BBC One on Thursday (28 July), with Fearnley-Whittingstall setting his sights on online retailer Amazon for the issue of excess packaging, and then on coffee shop chains Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero for the rising numbers of single-use paper cups being discarded rather than recycled.

The show begins with a look back at the success of the first War on Waste campaign to tackle food waste, with encouraging news about charity redistribution of surplus food.

After more than 300,000 people signed Fearnley-Whittingstall’s pledge to end food waste, all of the major supermarkets have taken steps to increase the amount of‘ imperfect' fruit and veg they now sell - some of them introducing new ‘wonky' ranges designed to get people engaged with the issue, and others deciding to relax cosmetic standards across some veg lines.

In the six months between filming episode two and episode three of the series, the volume of food that food redistribution charity FareShare received from retailers and food manufacturers increased by 60%, meaning that an extra 50,000 people are being fed every week.

Talking on the programme, Fearnley-Whittingstall says: “Seeing a bunch of kids getting a fantastic meal from food that would otherwise be thrown away – well, it makes you realise that all the retailers and all their suppliers really have to commit to an incredibly important principle – that food that can be eaten by human beings should be eaten by human beings.”

Coffee cup conundrum

Later in the episode, Fearnley-Whittingstall investigates “a recycling scandal that most of us never even knew existed”: single-use coffee cups. Taking to the streets of London in a ‘coffee cup battle bus’, Fearnley-Whittingstall reports that more than 5,000 coffee cups are discarded each minute, but less than 1% are actually recycled. Brands are therefore misleading the public when it comes to their cups being '100% recyclable', he says.

“The truth is, [the cups] are barely recyclable at all - in the everyday, commonly understood sense of the word. They cannot be recycled through any of the normal public waste collection services - who are consistently diverting them to be incinerated or sent to landfill.

“We want transparency, and we want action from these companies. Only by changing to a cup that is properly recyclable in the public waste disposal system, or by massively investing in new specialised facilities, can they justify the bold environmental claims they are making. This is a solvable problem, so let’s see them solve it.”

But this is a highly complex problem that presents a significant, global circular economy challenge. The reason coffee cups are so difficult to recycle is because they are sealed with a polyethylene (plastic) lining on the interior. This lining - which is used in Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero cups - is bonded tightly to the paper to prevent it from going soggy, but polyethylene can’t be recycled along with ordinary paper waste by local councils.

Additionally, more than 30% of the weight of cups sent for recycling is contamination, and resource efficiency research organisation INCPEN also notes that cup recycling is a highly resource-intensive process, with energy, water, cleaning chemicals, transport and money to collect, sort and clean waste all required.

Collaborate to innovate

There has been some movement in efforts to find a potential solution, though. A new recycling technique is now being explored which could create a potential solution to the polyethylene and paper relationship; and Starbucks is set to test the viability of cups developed by Frugalpac, which has replaced the plastic lining with a thin film that is specifically designed to separate from the paper during the recycling process.

More broadly, Peter Goodwin, founder of Simply Cups - which recycles single-use paper cups for the likes of McDonald's and Costa – has stressed the need for greater collaboration throughout coffee cup supply chains as a way of tackling the problem.

“It is now evident that brands can no longer use the recycling symbol as a defence mechanism to absolve responsibility,” Goodwin said earlier this year. “Instead, they should be engaging and collaborating with others in the supply chain in order to come up with workable solutions to tackle material segregation, collection and reprocessing.

“Product stewardship means that it is the responsibility of everyone in the supply chain – producers, users and brands – to ensure that the waste industry has the ability to extract the economic value it needs to ensure a commercially viable solution. The real question that needs to be asked is just how committed is everyone is to dealing with this issue and is there sufficient consumer demand to disrupt the status quo?”

LISTEN: The Sustainable Business Covered podcast - Episode 07 - How to win the war on waste coffee cups

Listen to this special episode of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast, exploring the potential answers to the coffee cup conundrum.

In the hour-long episode, broadcast just before Hugh's War on Waste airs, we speak to Simply Cups co-founder Peter Goodwin, circular economy consultant Sandy Rodger and Costa Coffee environment manager Ollie Rosevear to explore the key challenges and potential solutions to this highly complex issue.

Make sure you don't miss the next episode of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast - subscribe on iTunes here and bookmark this link where a new episode will appear every week.

Luke Nicholls


Circular economy | Food waste | packaging | war


Waste & resource management
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