Coffee Cups – 2017’s Recycling Hobby Horse

During 2017, the first series of War on Waste discussed the issue of coffee cups. In order to promote reusable cups, the producer elected to demonise coffee cups and advised that they are all sent to landfill, which they’re not.

It is true that our single use, throwaway society is contributing to litter, which can lead to marine impacts. I am pragmatic though and understand that not every coffee drinker will have a reusable cup with them, and not everyone will have either the luxury or care to sit in rather than take away. The cups are not going away soon.

So what about these plastic liners that seem to be causing such a problem? Did you know that disposable coffee cups have the same but less plastic lining, by percentage weight, than a milk carton? It’s true; they generally have between 10-14% plastic and the rest is paper fibre and everyone is happy to classify milk cartons as recyclable. Perhaps it’s because milk cartons are not often found in litter so they’re not such a prominent reminder of our single use, throwaway habits.

Managing and extracting plastic films during the paper and cardboard pulping process is simply part of modern day paper manufacturing. Other examples of paper products that have a plastic content are ice cream cartons, coated paper and envelopes with plastic windows.

30 years ago our facilities, manufacturers and behaviours didn’t support the recycling of milk cartons either but the industry’s technology and attitude to recycling has evolved.

So, if it’s not the plastic liner that prevents coffee cups from being recycled, what is it?

To answer this question, the key stakeholders in the packaging supply chain should come together[i] to discuss the facts and identify solutions for tackling the current confusion, such as:

  1. Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and paper mills providing consistent public statements about the acceptability of cups in the recycling system and the role that needs to be played by consumers and manufacturers to assist in maximising the recovery rate;
  2. Cup manufacturers adhering to specified limits on the type and amount of plastic;
  3. Consumers being encouraged to take more responsibility by using reusable cups and avoiding litter;
  4. Cup brand owners including consistent instructions on cups on how to recycle the cup and lid;
  5. Cafes providing in-store recycling bins with a consistent recycling message; and
  6. Facility managers such as airports and train stations having a consistent recycling message on public place bins.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for fixing this problem but there surely is a way to divert cups from landfill and provide greater clarity for consumers on the role they can play to increase the recycling rate.

Anthony Peyton is the Director of PREP Design, which has developed the Packaging Recyclability Evaluation Portal (PREP) that allows the members of APCO and OPRL to design and confidently classify the recyclability of packaging.

[i] APCO has formed a Polymer Coated Paper Board Working Group to collate evidence around the end of life fate of these consumer packaging materials and create design guides to improve the ability of the designs to be recovered and recycled into other paper materials.