In practice: James Cropper’s upcycling solution for the coffee cup conundrum

Ahead of edie's flagship Sustainability Leaders Awards in January, edie is taking a closer look at some of the projects initiatives that have been deemed worthy of a finalist position by our expert judges. First up: James Cropper's upcycling system for paper cups.

The Challenge

In the UK, more than 5,000 paper coffee cups are discarded each minute, but less than 1% of these are recycled. Despite most major outlets claiming that the cups are recyclable, they are difficult to treat as they are sealed with a polyethylene (plastic) lining on the interior, which can’t by recycled along with paper waste by local councils.

Most of these cups instead go to landfill, where they can take up to 30 years to decompose. While high-profile media campaigns such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste series have increased the public awareness on the issue, new innovations to actually solve it remain few and far between.

The Solution

British papermaker James Cropper has invented what it claims is “the world’s first upcycling process” for used disposable paper cups. The company’s CupCycling facility has been fitted with technology that can separate the paper and plastic components of the paper cups.

Once the materials have been separated, the polyethylene is recycled into products such as plastic tubing and cable wraps, while the paper fibre is turned into luxury paper fibres.

Originally, the process was tailored for off-cuts from disposable cup production, but following two years of trials James Cropper has worked with waste management companies to create a supply of used cups. This supply of new cups has created the material base to create products ranging from packaging to stationary, which have since been used by businesses including McDonald’s and Selfridges.

The Benefits

Since the CupCycling facility opened, it has upcycled six million used paper cups that would have otherwise been sent to landfill. This is the equivalent of recycling two billion cups from post-consumer industrial waste.

Because the paper and plastic lining are separated, all new products can be recycled through their respected waste management streams. James Cropper also ensures that the process produces no waste whatsoever.

The process also adds very little time management to incumbent businesses. As long as a company separates the cups from general waste on site, all collection, sorting and baling is carried out by third-party waste management firms.

Business applications

As mentioned, McDonalds has been sending its paper cups from its 1,250 UK stores to James Cropper for recycling. Paper cups contribute around 30% of McDonald’s packaging waste, and the new partnership means the fast-food giant can reduce its waste-to-landfill levels as a result.

Elsewhere, Selfridges has estimated that CupCycling will enable them to upcycle around 200,000 cups each year. The partnership will see James Cropper produce the recognisable yellow Selfridges bags, with one large bag containing the equivalent paper of one 8oz cup.

The system has also successfully created behavioural changes among retailers and consumers. Retailers, coffee houses and cafes are now making investments into new recycling infrastructure, while 88% of the nation would reportedly use a purpose-built coffee cup bin if available.

The Costs

As James Cropper was attempting to build the system and supply chain from scratch, time and investment into the scheme was unknown beforehand. While the trials took two years to complete, the cost associations are yet to be disclosed.

James Cropper does note that a thorough cost-benefit analysis on the economics of launching an upcycling service was conducted.

The Future

Currently, the CupCycling plant has a capacity to process and treat 500 million paper cups annually. But James Cropper is keen to expand this further and is already talking to other retailers to improve its supply chain. By 2020, the company anticipates having the potential to have rescued around one billion cups from landfill.

In fact, James Cropper is an executive board member of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG), which will give the company ample opportunity to gauge the interest of suppliers.

Matt Mace

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