Collaboration not condemnation: Simply Cups speaks out on coffee cup recycling debate

British paper cup recycler Simply Cups has claimed that brands should not be using recycling symbols as a 'defence mechanism' and instead must look to collaborate with their supply chains in order to increase recycling rates of discarded coffee cups.

Peter Goodwin, founder of Simply Cups – which recycles single-use paper cups for the likes of McDonald’s and Costa – insists that brands aren’t deliberately misleading the public when it comes to their cups being ‘100% recyclable’, even though less than 1% of the UK’s three billion paper cups are actually recycled each year, due to contamination and sorting issues.

Goodwin’s comments, released in a statement to the press last night, come as Costa was this week accused of misleading customers with ‘cynical greenwash’ over the recycling of its cups. Goodwin believes extensive collaboration with supply chains will prove key to 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. “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?”

War on Waste

News of poor recycling rates of coffee cups hit the headlines on Tuesday (15 March) after the Times learnt that just one in 400 cups are currently being recycled.

The issue was then compounded further through a new round of campaigning from TV chef turned eco-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Hitting the streets of London in bus decorated with hundreds of coffee cups, the chef announced that his popular ‘War on Waste’ TV series had averted its attention directly on the high-street coffee shops.

“The truth is, [the cups] are barely recyclable at all – in the everyday, commonly understood sense of the word,” Fearnley-Whittingstall said. “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.

“The coffee companies are taking advantage of the public’s false confidence in their responsible actions. They are actively encouraging the misunderstanding, with claims and statements on their websites. And two of the biggest – Costa and Starbucks – seem to be the worst culprits.”

The reason that 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 both Costa and Starbucks cups – is bonded tightly to the paper to prevent if from going soggy, but polyethylene can’t be recycled along with ordinary paper waste by local councils.

Goodwin pointed out that Simply Cups’ two UK facilities are capable of recycling high street paper cups which are lined with polyethylene, but the cups still need to be provided to these plants “in an appropriate form and free from contamination”.

Goodwin is now calling on both the suppliers and brands to reach out to Simply Cups in order to increase recycling efforts. “Viable solutions are already available and so we would urge producers, users and brands to engage with us as soon as possible and take positive action,” he said.

Simply Cups currently has a target in place to recycle six million cups by the end of 2016. Goodwin realises that this ambition must be raised ‘much higher’, but would prove futile without this holistic collaboration.

Coffee cup tax?

While Simply Cups is calling for a collaborative solution among industry, Environment Minister Rory Stewart this week urged the House of Commons to impose a coffee cup tax to address the “huge” recycling problem.

Stewart cited the success of the UK-wide plastic bag levy as a case in point. “Having tackled plastic bags – I hope everybody in the House would agree the plastic bag tax has been a success – coffee cups seem to be a very good thing to look at next,” he said.

The Government has reportedly since dismissed Stewart’s idea, claiming there are no plans to introduce a new levy of this kind – an announcement described by the Telegraph as the ‘quickest U-turn on record’.

Matt Mace

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