Recyclable coffee cups and mushroom packaging: 7 innovations that could win the war on waste

In a week that sees the recyclability of coffee cups and cardboard packaging come under scrutiny in Hugh's War on Waste, edie rounds up the potential technologies and solutions that Britain's retailers could be exploring to make 'waste' a word of the past.

We may not own a River Cottage, but we are fully on-board with celebrity TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his his new War on Waste series, which airs tonight (28 July) at 9pm and targets high street coffee shops and Amazon’s packaging systems.

Having previously called out supermarkets over the amount of unnecessary food waste being produced, Fearnley-Whittingstall turns his attentions to the likes of Costa and Starbucks to address why less than 1% of the supposedly recyclable paper cups are actually being recycled.

The Sustainable Business Covered podcast: Episode 07 – How to win the war on waste coffee cups —

And, despite drawing up innovative new measures to increase delivery times – which includes the use of drones and a business model similar to Uber – Amazon is in the crossfire over the amount of material it uses in its packaging.

But, amidst all of the controversy, there exists some truly innovative concepts to tackle the issue of retail waste – some address the issue of recyclability, others replace raw materials together. And one or two even go as far as finding a new purpose for the waste produced.

With this in mind, edie has pulled together an packaging innovation extravaganza, offering up seven sustainability solutions that could all serve a purpose in ending the war on waste. Here they all are in one neat and tidy little green package…

Starbucks gets frugal to tackle paper cup problems


We start this round-up in the eye of the coffee cup storm. In Episode 07 of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast, edie spoke exclusively with Costa about the paper cup recycling debate, but that doesn’t mean that other coffee shop giants have been completely dormant on the matter.

Starbucks has launched a new collaborative partnership with Frugalpac. The innovative company is able to avert recyclability issues that arise when polyethylene (plastic) is used on the interior of the cup. It replaces the lining with a thin film that has been specifically designed to separate from paper during the recycling process

Starbucks is apparently “very interested” in this concept, which can be recycled in normal paper mills and has half the carbon footprint of traditional paper coffee cups.

One person’s rubbish is another person’s solution

Sticking with coffee cups for the time-being, a different approach could also be used to cut down on the waste produced by retailers. While recycler Simply Cups has insisted that these brands aren’t ‘deliberately’ misleading the public, it has called for a greater collaborative approach to solve the ongoing crisis.

Potential companies that these brands could collaborate with are recycling consultancy Nextek and recycling manufacturers AShortWalk. The two have worked together to create the NextCupCycle resin. Simply Cups are already working with the concept, which takes both the paper and plastic of the cups to create a new raw material.

The resin can be used to 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. The resulting products are 40% stronger in weight handling capabilities – compared to conventional plastics – and can be moulded into products at “high speeds”.

The product that could burst cardboard’s bubble

Packaging has always proved a mild inconvenience. Distributors have to balance the amount of material used against the durability of the parcel and breakability of the product, while consumers decide which bubble to pop first on the bubble wrap.

However, this new concept from Scotland-based Bubl Bag could negate the need the for cardboard, bubble wrap and the hundreds of polystyrene flakes that end up on your floor. The bubl bag acts as the outer shell of the delivery parcel, while also providing adequate protection to a range of products including smartphones and clocks.

Despite being made from plastic, the bags are apparently 100% recyclable and are designed to be reused multiple times. It has an inflatable inner cores which engulfs the product with compressed air and holds it securely in place.

IKEA starts fast-tracking fungi

While Amazon is now under increased public scrutiny for its packaging, there are some companies that are already acting as trailblazers in the sustainable packaging movement. Flat-pack furniture maker IKEA is eyeing up a new range of alternate polystyrene packaging alongside its new business shake-up.

Traditional polystyrene takes longer than conventional plastic to decompose, but this mushroom-based packaging, from New York-based Ecovative, can decompose naturally in a matter of weeks. IKEA is looking to use the mushroom packaging, which is made using mycelium and acts similarly to plant roots and fastens the mushrooms to the ground to absorb nutrients.

Ecovative actually grows the package using agricultural waste, before being broken down and set into molds that can be sculpted to hold various types of products. IKEA’s head of sustainability in the UK, Joanna Yarrow, has already praised the potential of the concept.

A very a-peel-ing UK-bound packaging

What if packaging – specifically food packaging – could actually go a step further and mimic the food it holds by becoming 100% bio-degradable? Well, as this innovation round-up has previously revealed, this is actually possible.

While companies such as Coca-Cola and Heinz have opted for plant-based packaging, an innovative Israeli company has developed packaging that acts more like a fruit than a plant.

Tipa Sustainable Packaging provides a new form of flexible packaging – commonly used as carrot bags and for perishables – that “acts like an orange peel” and can biodegrade in just 180 days.

Plans are in the pipeline to roll the concept bags – both transparent and traditional – to include stand-up pouches, bags for granola, crisps, grains, dried foods and vitamin capsules. TIPA is set to announce the first of its exclusive UK brand partnerships at the end of September.

Buildings and plastic; no longer oceans apart


The above innovations all act as suitable remedies for the cause of the waste produced by retailers, but the symptoms are still visible and require action if the planet wants to successfully transition to a prosperous low-carbon future.

With that in mind, the large amount of plastic currently plaguing the oceans needs to be dealt with. One potential way to clean up the oceans is by recycling the plastics into durable construction blocks that can be used to strengthen the structure of buildings.

That is what US start-up ByFusion is trying to achieve. Using a ‘RePlast’ system that can run on electricity, the company can custom build blocks from plastic waste that doesn’t need to be washed or sorted beforehand. The company claims the blocks are almost 100% recyclable and has a 95% lower emissions rate than traditional, carbon-heavy concrete blocks.

Waxing lyrical about plastic fuel

One potential answer to the plastic-waste-in-the ocean conundrum is to actually remove the plastic from the waves in order to allow ships to sustainably pass over them. With shipping now facing an emissions rise of 250% if action isn’t taken, the industry is turning to green innovations in areas such as paint coatings to find potential solutions.

Now, new research will test whether Recycling Technologies’ Plaxx, a fuel made from mixed plastic waste, can be used as an alternative to crude derived fuels in industrial and marine engines. The waste is sourced from plastic found in commercial, industrial and municipal waste streams, which is either mixed, laminated, contaminated and ultimately not accepted by conventional recycling plants.

Plaxx puts the plastic through a depolymerisation process and is made up of mixed hydrocarbon monomers similar to crude oil – but with the added benefit of being low in sulphur. It starts as a soft wax, but turns into a liquid at 70C. The tests, carried out with Swindon council, will examine the impact the fuel has on engine wear and shipping emissions.

LISTEN: The Sustainable Business Covered podcast – Episode 07 – How to win the war on waste coffee cups

Listen to this special episode of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast, exploring the potential answers to the coffee cup conundrum.

In the hour-long episode, broadcast just before Hugh’s War on Waste airs, we speak to Simply Cups co-founder Peter Goodwin, circular economy consultant Sandy Rodger and Costa Coffee environment manager Ollie Rosevear to explore the key challenges and potential solutions to this highly complex issue.

Make sure you don’t miss the next episode of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast – subscribe on iTunes here and bookmark this link where a new episode will appear every week.

Matt Mace

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