Companies are making progress from developing detachable plastic linings to compostable tableware.
Even when they do put their cup in the recycling bin, consumers can’t be sure that it will actually be recycled.
Each year, an estimated 2.5bn paper cups are thrown away in the UK. And a whole lot of energy goes into making these single-use containers.
What’s more, despite their name, paper cups don’t just consist of paper: in order to prevent the cups going soggy, most manufacturers add a thin coating of plastic. While the result may make your coffee experience more enjoyable, it also makes the cups very hard to recycle.
Several new companies have set out to solve that dilemma. 3Boys, a pioneering British packaging firm that recently made headlines when it introduced a “paper wine bottle”, has developed a paper cup with a plastic lining that easily separates from the paper. “We need to address issues on the local level, and 90% of coffee customers walk away from the shop with their coffee”, explains Martin Myerscough, 3Boys’ CEO. “Recycling in the store doesn’t really help.”
Given the difficulty and expense of separating the plastic lining from the paper, most shops and chains don’t recycle paper cups anyway. 3Boys’ Green Cup’s inner plastic sheet allows consumers to easily remove it and recycle.
According to Myerscough, companies were initially sceptical of the idea, believing customers wouldn’t be interested. But after public demonstrations of the cup in London earlier this year proved a hit with passers-by, Myerscough says their attitude changed. “Yes, there will always be consumers who just want a cheap paper cup, but there’s a lot of interest in recyclable ones, and once local government gets involved in supporting the recycling, use could really take off,” he predicts.
Edinburgh-based Vegware is already seeing that progress. The maker of compostable tableware has been named as Scotland’s third-fastest growing technology company. “You can compost food and you can recycle packaging, but you can’t recycle them together,” explains founder and managing director Joe Frankel. “Our solution is the only way that allows you to do that.” Vegware’s plant-based products – from sushi boxes to cutlery – can be composted with or indeed without food remains on them, and the company reports operations and distribution across Europe as well as in South Africa, the US and even the UAE.
Perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, global paints and coatings company AkzoNobel has joined the recyclable paper cup trend as well. Its technology – introduced in chips and hamburger containers at the 2012 London Olympics and soon to be available for cups as well – features a special coating that allows the paper to be recycled with high-quality results up to seven times.
“QSRs [quick-service restaurants] realised that customers’ last experience with them was garbage, so they’ve been looking for recycling options that send the garbage not downstream, as has been the case until now, but into products of equal value or at least into something that can be put into a landfill and decompose,” explains AkzoNobel marketing director Chris Bradford. The company plans to have its cups available to buyers within the next 18 months.
If companies and consumers are at least moderately interested, and the technology isn’t that complicated, how come fast-food restaurants and cafés don’t already offer recyclable or compostable cups? Polyethylene, today’s ubiquitous plastic coating, is simply too convenient. “The industry has been using it for 40 years and it has credibility,” says Bradford.
Frankel adds: “Certain materials have recently come of age. And recycling has advanced, making different kinds of recycling possible.” While plant-based, compostable plates and cups may have been possible 20 years ago, technological advances and environmental awareness make them feasible today.
But even though large chains like Starbucks offer recycling bins, they’re struggling to make people put their cups there. And even when they do put their cup in the recycling bin, consumers can’t be sure that it will actually be recycled. As Myerscough notes, most consumers don’t finish their beverage at the coffee shop anyway. Bringing a personal cup seems a logical solution, but since Starbucks introduced a personal-cup initiative in 2008, with a goal of 25% personal cup use, only 1.9% of beverages have been sold that way. There is, in other words, room for innovative solution. “People are starting to join the end of life conversation,” adds Bradford.
The question is, of course, how much coffee shops and fast food restaurants are willing to pay for a better end of life for cups. Pret A Manger, considered a green leader, could not be reached for comment, but Bradford says that AkzoNobel has had “positive discussions” with fast food chains. There may indeed come a time when enjoying a coffee in a disposable cup won’t involve a guilty conscience.