But The Recycling Association – which represents a large number of UK paper recyclers – has warned that attempts to recycle the estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups thrown away in the UK each year could lead to greater instances of contamination in paper and cardboard streams.
The views come as BBC One prepares to air the latest episode of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘ War on Waste’ at 9pm – which will see the celebrity chef turn his focus on to the amount of takeaway coffee cups that end up either landfilled or incinerated.
The issue garnered widespread attention in March when Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall questioned the recyclability of the cups – leading to headlines that major coffee chains on UK high streets were misleading the public by claiming the cups could be recycled in the mixed paper stream.
Such was the outcry that the then resource minister Rory Stewart promised the government would “look at” disposable coffee cups as its next priority after plastic bags. His suggestions that the cups could be taxed were quickly rejected in a statement by Defra (see letsrecycle.com story).
Tonight’s episode of the ‘War on Waste’ will see Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall grill coffee shop giants Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero over their cup recycling policies.
Veolia claims it is making it possible for more coffee cups to be recycled by working in partnership with its customers to ‘trial new solutions’. Two specialist facilities – James Cropper plc in Cumbria and ACE UK in Halifax – already process a small quantity of cups by using a warmed solution to separate polyethylene from paper fibre.
Richard Kirkman, technical director for Veolia UK and Ireland, said that once it has trialled its own solutions, it will be opening a new paper pulping facility that will be able to reprocess the material into products such as egg boxes and coffee cup holders.
He said: “One of the biggest challenge we’ve faced throughout this journey is cup contamination. This occurs when cups are mixed in with the general waste stream and get damaged, most frequently by food waste. However this new technology allows us to bypass this and create a new resource.”
But the Recycling Association warns that people who watch tonight’s programme might assume the cups should be recycled in existing separate paper recycling bins and containers.
Simon Ellin, the association’s chief executive, said: “We need to be very careful that more recycling of cardboard coffee cups does not lead to more contamination of the rest of the paper recycling stream.
“By their nature, even these cups when emptied will contain residue of tea, coffee or hot chocolate, all of which will act as a contaminant if mixed with other types of cardboard, office paper or newspaper. Plus, the plastic lids may also get mixed in with other sources of paper requiring more sorting and impacting on quality.
“While Hugh’s attempts to encourage less waste are welcome, we need to be very careful that these efforts do not create adverse impacts on a sector where the quality of material supplied to end destinations at home and abroad is vital.”
Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the Industry Council for research on Packaging & the Environment (INCPEN) goes a step further by arguing the energy, water, haulage and sorting costs of recycling the volumes of disposable cups would not in itself be economically or environmentally sustainable.
“We should focus on easily recycled large items and leave small dirty ones to be treated with residual waste where at least 20% will be used to generate energy which will reduce the UK’s reliance on imported energy,” she said.