Costa aims to lead industry transformation with pledge to recycle half a billion coffee cups

EXCLUSIVE: Costa Coffee's energy & environment manager Oliver Rosevear has said the retailer wants to drive cross-industry collaboration on coffee cup recycling, as it today (18 April) makes a bold commitment to recycle the equivalent of its entire annual sales of takeaway cups – at a financial cost to the business.

The UK’s largest coffee chain has announced that it will recycle up to 500 million coffee cups a year by 2020, with at least 100 million set to be recycled this year. The target accounts for a fifth of the 2.5 billion coffee cups that are currently being thrown away annually across the country.

Speaking exclusively to edie following the announcement, Rosevear revealed how Costa effectively engaged with the waste sector to kickstart this ambitious pledge, and underlined that the firm is now encouraging other retailers to collaborate around the issue.

“We’re really trying to stimulate the market and get more cups recycled in the UK,” Rosevear said. “We understand that this is a national problem, and therefore we need to engage with the waste industry to step up the waste infrastructure and attempt to guarantee that the cups are recycled… the intent of this investment is to help the waste industry invest in the right infrastructure.

“It’s the responsibility of everyone [to deliver better recyclability]. But, as the UK’s largest coffee shop, we must play our part, which is exactly what we’re doing today by making this announcement. It would be great to see other companies joining this scheme… we see this as a collaborative approach.”

Industry conversations

In the current market, takeaway paper coffee cups can only be recycled in select infrastructure. The cups are commonly sealed with a plastic lining to make them waterproof. Although both materials are recyclable, the lining cannot be handled by most recycling facilities, while the paper is subjected to contamination issues.

Whitbread-owned Costa already offers in-store recycling at more than 2,000 of its stores across the UK. Today’s announcement goes a step further, with an aim to improve on the collection rates of Costa cups, ensuring they are sent to UK paper mills operated by James Cropper, ACE UK and DS Smith to recycle them. Costa is also working with McDonald’s, Starbucks and others to roll out 400 recycling points across the UK

What is significant about today’s pledge is that Costa has said it will also now pay a £70 supplement to incentivise waste collectors, enabling them to invest in infrastructure that can increase the collection rates of the cups. Through this supplement, waste collectors Veolia, Biffa, Suez, Grundon and First Mile will see the value of coffee cups increase to around £120 per tonne; the fact that they are being recycled rather than discarded in landfill or used for energy from waste, should also see its value increase further.

An additional fee will be paid to ValPak, an independent third-party auditor that will act as administrator for the system and report on recycling rates. Rosevear noted that Costa is a funder to the system, and that other retailers are invited to contribute to ValPak’s initiative. In fact, Costa’s managing director Dominic Paul claimed there was “no reason” why other retailers couldn’t work together to recycle all coffee cups nationwide by 2020.

Rosevear went on to explain that the £70 supplement will come at an “appropriate cost” to Costa’s bottom line, but believed it was the right step to take to create a market shift that incentivised investment into collection and recycling infrastructure.

“There will be a cost to our business,” Rosevear said. “But, it’s a cost we feel is appropriate given that we hope to guarantee that these cups will be recycled. We’ve accepted it’s the right thing to do. Once the infrastructure is in place then consumers have an easy way of being able to dispose of their cups.

“Making it so cups are easily recycled anywhere in the UK is the ultimate aim, its where we want to get to. This step change brings a lot more waste processors into the market who have access to the material and they can invest in the right infrastructure to be placed in offices and public spaces to drive more recycling and get more cups through the system.”

Policy guidance

Some critics have argued that policy reform is required to incentivise investment into the waste sector, in similar fashion to Costa’s new pledge. Earlier this year, for example, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) called for all single-use coffee cups to be recycled by 2023, which would require an overhaul the Producer Responsibility Obligations (PROs) system – the legal requirements for producers to ensure recyclability and recovery of products.

Businesses can show evidence of their compliance by purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs), but these contribute just 10% to the cost of waste disposal and collection. In 2013, for example, £37m generated from the PRO went towards collection. In contrast, it costs local authorities £550m to collect and sort packaging material.

While Rosevear is in agreement that the PRN system is in need of reform – the Waste and Resources strategy is set to be published later this year and could create the framework to do so – Costa’s energy and environment manager doesn’t believe that an overarching target set by Government is required to catalyse action on recycling.

“We recognise we need to put more into the PRN system to allow these cups to be recycled, it feels like the right thing to do,” Rosevear added. “The challenge with the PRN system is that it is not clear about where the revenue is going and how it supports certain materials.

“We’re urging government and working closely with them to reform the PRN system to replicate what we’re seeing here. Business is leading this, we’re pushing this forward and voluntary schemes like this can incentivise recycling. I don’t think there needs to be a requirement for additional legislation.”

Rosevear also reiterated Costa’s desire to accelerate progress towards coffee cup innovations while also encouraging consumers to purchase reusable cups. Costa offers a 25p discount to all customers that use a reusable cup and research continues to take place to attempt to reduce and remove the plastic lining from the takeaway cups. However, Rosevear noted that the “technology isn’t there yet”.

Oliver Rosevear is speaking at edie Live 2018

Costa’s energy & environment manager Oliver Rosevear will be speaking on the Resource Efficiency theatre at edie Live. The session will see industry experts discuss the role that sustainability and resource efficiency professionals can play in changing how people think and act towards the circular economy.

Running between 22–23 May 2018, edie Live plans to show delegates how they can achieve their Mission Possible. Through the lens of energy, resources, the built environment, mobility and business leadership an array of expert speakers will be on hand to inspire delegates to achieve a sustainable future.

For more information and to register for edie Live 2018, click here.

Matt Mace

Comments (2)

  1. Mark Woodward says:

    It is fantastic to see positive recycling stories making the national press, consumers need to know not only that they can recycle paper cups but how.
    Many coffee shops now have instore recycling, with Starbucks offering to recycle any brand of paper cups, and if you arrive home with your paper cups there are over 300 bringbanks around the country, many in the councils recycling centres, and for the lucky few there is even kerb side collections.

  2. James Webb says:

    While this is a step in the right direction, does this action/commitment include the lids (etc) or just the mug?

    Beyond this, as they seem to state, the better practice will be to remove single use takeaway cups completely from the use chain.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie