Competing cup claims: Fact or fiction?

The well-publicised debate on paper cup recycling has given rise to claims from various quarters, reporting to have solved the problem. Whilst working towards finding a solution is far better than flatly dismissing the need for a solution, the question remains: why are these apparently compelling solutions not being widely - and immediately - adopted across the industry?

Competing cup claims: Fact or fiction?

In my second edie blog, I’ll be looking at the merits of the most commonly cited solutions – biodegradeable cups, compostable cups and cups that are deemed ‘acceptable’ by paper mills – to understand how they compare to the standard polyethylene-lined cup which is currently widely used across the hospitality industry.

1) Biodegradeable cups

If biodegradation is defined as the disintegration of a product via bacteria, fungi or other biological means, then of what benefit is a biodegradeable cup? I can see the benefit of biodegradeable confetti thrown at a wedding, which will rarely be collected, but paper cups are not disposed of in the same manner, and therefore represent a clear littering problem.

Like all other cups today, the biodegradeable cup is limited to disposal in general waste bins – unless dealt with through Simply Cups, of course - which will result in either landfill or incineration. Neither outcome is ideal, but if there is an absence of oxygen in landfill then the products will not biodegrade and so the role of the biodegradeable cup becomes futile.

2) Compostable cups

Compostable cups will only decompose under certain conditions and so need to find their way to an appropriate facility where ultimately someone can generate value. And this is where the problems start. Whilst facilities certified to PAS 100 can technically accept this material, they first must be assured of the provenance of all packaging that they receive; which is only possible if everyone in the collection chain has been as diligent as each other to ensure that solely compostable packaging has been used. Otherwise, the load will be rejected.

In truth, the UK’s anaerobic digestion (AD) operators have little need for packaging, given the minimal return it offers. And, with only a handful of commercial In-Vessel Composting facilities, that also require a significant volume of food waste to process the packaging, then compostable cups face exactly the same issue as their recyclable counterpart.

I have been asked numerous times whether our scheme can recycle a compostable cup; which, of course, contradicts the rationale for producing a compostable cup in the first place. If the suggested solution is to segregate compostable cups at source and collect via scheme for recycling, then my question is why then would the customer would pay a premium for a compostable cup? Indeed, a more cost-effective recyclable cup would deliver sufficient savings to fund involvement in the recycling scheme whilst at the same time elevating the customer’s performance up the waste hierarchy.

Of course, a solution will become significantly more viable if compostable cups become the main choice into the marketplace, but this will require significant investment in infrastructure and a better understanding of the actual benefits of the product based on its full life-cycle analysis, i.e. one that makes considerations outside of solely raw material production.

3) Cups deemed ‘acceptable’ by paper mills

Whilst these are fundamentally consistent with our approach to designing waste out from the front end, the design element must consider the system as a whole and not on the product in isolation, which is where this solution encounters problems.

Perhaps, though, we should first consider whether recovery via a pulping process at a paper mill is the best solution at all. This is an extremely resource-intensive process which usually fails to recover the value of the polyethylene lining. With recent innovations to convert paper cups into a new and improved polymer used to manufacture functional products, why would we then even consider pulping as either a commercially or environmentally viable process?

Notwithstanding this argument, we should also consider he negative effect that the residual liquid, left in the cups, has on the quality of the other paper and cardboard streams, as pointed out by the Recycling Association.  

There is no mechanical solution readily available to separate paper cups in the sorting facility and so simply placing the product in a ‘mixed recyclable’ stream will not result in the cup reaching its intended destination. Therefore, separate paper and cardboard bins will need to be made available in public places, and in particular, on the high street.

But even if the cup actually reaches the paper mill, the fundamental issue is how does it differentiate compliant cups from the overwhelming number that are not? The reality is that it cannot, nor has it a commercial reason to do so. The solution to this problem goes back to separating these cups at source and routing the cups directly to the paper mill, thus circumnavigating current infrastructure. But if we can already do this with the existing cup, then why do we need a new ‘recyclable’ cup?

The Technosphere – not the Biosphere – will solve the problem

Despite the many applications of the recycling symbol, claims of certificates proving compostability, and labels telling us that we can place cups in our domestic kerbside collection, the reality is that there has been little resource recovered from the very few cups actually being recycled.

From the perspective of the circular economy, we also need to acknowledge that paper cups belong in the technosphere (recycling) not the biosphere (decompostation) as there are simply no biological nutrients to extract – i.e. plants do not feed off paper cups.

We also recognise that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did a fantastic job in raising public awareness of the cup issue, but he was fundamentally missing the point in calling for a ‘recyclable’ cup. The cup that is currently in mass circulation is already recyclable; albeit that we do not have the systems to actually recycle it.

The problem will not be solved by considering product design or recycling systems in isolation, but instead will require significant collaboration to enable us to match system inputs with system outputs.

Designated bins, collection systems and infrastructure are currently required for any type of cup, so let us not be too hasty in casting aside our current ‘recyclable’ cup, and certainly not if it provides us with the best chance of it actually being recycled.


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 Rodgerand Costa Coffee's environment manager Ollie Rosevear to explore the key challenges and potential solutions to this highly complex issue.

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

Peter Goodwin

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: anaerobic digestion | Circular economy | composting | Food & drink | Food waste | Hospitality & leisure | incineration | Infrastructure | packaging | sustainable business | sustainable business covered | war
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