In practice: Canary Wharf Group’s closed-loop Clean Coffee Zone

With the Canary Wharf Estate welcoming almost a million visitors every week, site owner Canary Wharf Group has seized upon an opportunity to ignite a resource revolution. Through the creation of closed-loop 'Clean Coffee Zone', coffee-related waste is now recycled and turned into new resources.

The challenge

Despite claims from many retailers that paper coffee cups are recyclable, the reality is that more than 5,000 of these cups are discarded each minute, but less than 1% of these are actually recycled.

Paper coffee cups are difficult to recycle because they are sealed with a polyethylene (plastic) lining on the interior. This lining – which is used in the cups sold by nearly all major coffee sellers including Costa and Starbucks – 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.

These cups, alongside lids and coffee grounds, are generated by more than 300 shops, bars and restaurants across the Canary Wharf Estate in east London. Each year, an estimated half a million cups are used across the Estate, which spans 128 acres.

The Canary Wharf Group, which owns the Estate, has been able to increase its recycling rates to 84% over the past two years. Coffee cups and waste coffee grounds have previously been treated with food waste, which goes to anaerobic digestion or incineration, and thus does not allow for a closed-loop process. Therefore, in order to deliver on a target for 85% of all waste from Canary Wharf retail operations to go to second-life uses, the Canary Wharf Group identified this particular waste stream as a key issue that needed resolving.

The solution

In February 2017, the Canary Wharf Group launched its first ever coffee waste initiative, ‘Wake Up and Smell The Coffee’, making the entire 128 acre Canary Wharf Estate a ‘Clean Coffee Zone’.

Through this initiative, coffee cups, lids and coffee grounds generated by the 300 outlets across five shopping centres within the Estate are recycled with the use of designated bins. The initiative means that coffee cups are given second-life uses, thereby repurposing hundreds of tonnes of waste generated from coffee drinking each year.

The campaign is being delivered for Canary Wharf Management Limited (CWML) by the Cawley Group, the waste management company for the Estate and Veris, the sustainability and communications partner.

The Canary Wharf Group also struck new collaborative agreements with biomass recycling firm Bio-bean and paper cup recycling specialists Simply Cups, the latter of which owns two UK facilities that are capable of recycling high-street paper cups that are lined with polyethylene. Waste collection contracts were drawn up for Bio-bean and Simply Cups to collect the coffee cup waste, before treating it off-site.

How the recycling process works

Paper cups can be disposed of using specially-designated bins that have since been re-branded with new messaging to encourage consumers to dispose of the coffee cup lids and paper sleeves in different bin compartments.

Bales of the cups are transported to specialist recycling facilities operated by Simply Cups, where they are unfastened, separated and fed to a conveyor belt to be dropped into a pulper. To separate and recover the paper fibre and polyethylene lining from the cups, they are first pulped using water at an ambient temperature to separate the polyethylene lining and the paper fibres. The difference in density of the materials means the polyethylene floats above the paper slurry and is skimmed off the top of the water. Any impurities are then removed from the paper fibre slurry, which is stored in large tanks before being manufactured into new products, such as food trays or cutlery.

For waste coffee grounds, retailers that produce coffee are required to have back-of-house disposal units. The coffee grounds are placed into bins provided by Bio-bean, and Canary Wharf has placed additional compactors for coffee waste onsite.

The Bio-bean factory will dry the waste coffee grounds before passing them through a patented biochemical process that extracts oil. By weight, around 15-20% is lost through oil extraction and the remainder is turned into biomass pellets or ‘coffee logs’, which can be sold and used for cooking and fuel. Bio-bean claims that its coffee logs produce more heat than other fuels based on cost, and burn for a longer duration than wood.

The Canary Wharf Group doesn’t expect the biofuel from the waste coffee grounds to be integrated across the whole estate, but says it could be used in pockets of the business to power certain parts of the estate, with offices also a possibility.

The business benefits

Latest figures reveal that around three tonnes of coffee cups and 17 tonnes of coffee grounds have been collected since the scheme launched in February. This has also provided a carbon benefit for Canary Wharf, with the new disposal methods reducing carbon emissions by an estimated 18 tonnes.

When the Canary Wharf Group introduced the initiative, the aim was to make it cost-neutral. Due to changes in infrastructure, such as the new bins and messaging, the campaign is still running at a cost, but the Group is confident that it will be a cost-neutral operation within the next three years.

The main payback, according to Canary Wharf Group, will be seen through using recycled content produced from the waste collection process – which it is yet to do. This would help to increase supplier and brand interaction with the campaign, as those suppliers and brands will get greater access to the products on the estate.

For retailers on the Canary Wharf Estate, there is no contractual obligation to take part in this initiative, but those that do take part are featured in Canary Wharf magazines and on forums, generating a positive brand image. Canary Wharf’s communications team visits all stores once a month to talk through the scheme and encourage uptake.

Additional benefits

The initiative has helped to raise awareness and bring about wider community benefits. The ‘Hugh’s War on Waste’ TV series placed the media spotlight on the lack of recyclability of paper coffee cups. And with Canary Wharf’s own ‘Making Sustainability Real’ CSR approach pushing the Group to introduce innovative solutions to topical dilemmas, the War on Waste campaign offered an ideal platform to engage consumers and retailers on the solutions to coffee cup recycling.

At the launch of the campaign, members of the public were asked to pledge their support and donate their coffee cups at a stand near the designated bins, where they could exchange coffee cups for a re-usable equivalent designed by manufacturer KeepCup. Those who took part were also rewarded with coffee vouchers for Change Please, an initiative which provides a barista training programme for previously homeless individuals.

The scheme has also helped to strengthen the relationship between landlord and tenant across the Canary Wharf Estate when it comes to sustainable business practices, which companies able to progress their own sustainability strategies knowing that Canary Wharf is also attempting to drive efficiencies further.

Next steps…

The Canary Wharf Group is now planning to move the initiative into its office buildings, and is discussing how an adapted version of the retail operation might work. EY has been the first commercial tenant to roll out the initiative in its offices at Churchill Place, and Canary Wharf Group believes it can now leverage its role as a self-contained estate to promote wider interest in the scheme among other retailers and businesses.

The Group is also investigating ways that it can use the trays and cutlery produced by Simply Cups on its estate, though this will largely depend on how well these items can be branded so that visitors and shoppers know how they were produced.

The company’s aspiration to re-use 100% of the waste that it generates has already seen it look ahead to future challenges. For example, the Canary Wharf Group is now engaging with shops and brands to draw up action plans to tackle plastic waste from the likes of bags and straws. Any campaign will likely follow a similar collaborative approach to that taken through this coffee cup recycling initiative, according to the Group.

Matt Mace & Luke Nicholls

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