Issues surrounding coffee cups were flung into the spotlight in March, after celebrity TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall paraded his “battle bus” around London to inform the general public that less than 0.25% of the estimated three billion cups used annually in the UK were being recycled.

Despite advertising the cups as recyclable, big coffee chains were accused of using the reuse concept as a “defence mechanism” and were urged to collaborate in order to find a solution. While the calls for a solution have been plentiful the actual solution is slightly more complex.

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 it from going soggy, but polyethylene can’t be recycled along with ordinary paper waste by local councils.

While 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, there has been little movement in the efforts to find a solution.

Trash to treasure

A new recycling technique – developed by recycling consultancy Nextek and recycling manufacturers AShortWalk – could create a potential solution to the polyethylene and paper relationship and the renewable resource shortage, by “playing to the strengths” of the materials in their combined form.

“We have used our expertise in polymer composites to develop innovative mixtures of the high quality paper fibres and plastic coatings and the occasional lid, spoon and straw into high strength composites that can be used in a wide range of building and consumer products,” Nextek’s managing director Edward Kosior said.

Kosior claims that the new resin – dubbed NextCupCycle – could create durable long-life products that would displace finite virgin materials used for product development, with just one recycling plant needed to cater for half of the annual volume of UK coffee cups.

When small volumes of cups are recycled, only the paper can currently be extracted for reuse, severely limiting the volume of reusable resources that can be pulled from the UK’s coffee cup mountain. But by removing the entire separation process, the new resin can produce larger quantities of construction material.

By focussing on “improving the adhesion of the coffee cup paper fibres to the plastic” the new material is up to 40% stronger in weight handling capabilities – compared to conventional plastics – and can be moulded into products at “high speeds”. Nextek also believe that combining the material with waste recovered from electronic and electrical equipment is an avenue worth exploring.

The concept has proved so promising that the aforementioned Simply Cups will be working with Nextek and AShortWalk to launch the technology in numerous coffee shop and cafeteria products on Thursday (16 June) at the Museum of London Dockland – which is also set for a sustainable makeover.

edie’s Resource Revolution Conference

Business applications of the circular economy is a central focus of the edie Resource Revolution Conference.

Taking place on 5 July, the edie Resource Revolution Conference provides resource management, sustainability, waste, product, supply chain and design professionals with tools they need to rethink their approach to resource use and waste outputs, drive organisational efficiencies, behaviour change and profitability, and effect a revolution in their company’s sustainability credentials.

You can view the agenda of the conference here at register to attend here.

Matt Mace

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