Understanding the recycling process for disposable coffee cups

Esther Gibbs
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February 26, 2024
disposable coffee cups, coffee cups, takeaway coffee cups, recyclable coffee cups, compostable coffee cups,

Disposable coffee cups were first developed by Boston lawyer, Lawrence Luellen, in 1908. He wanted a convenient way to drink coffee on the go, so he created paper cups that could be thrown away when empty. Therefore, the first takeaway coffee cups comprised paper coated in wax to withstand the heat of the beverage. 

Very quickly, disposable coffee cups gained popularity, and demand grew throughout each World War. During the 1950s and 60s, demand for takeaway coffee cups skyrocketed thanks to the increase in food and beverage businesses. 

Today, it’s estimated that at least 500 billion disposable cups are used every year. As the majority of takeaway coffee cups can be difficult to recycle, many end up going to landfill, where they contribute to a growing waste problem. As consumers become increasingly conscious of their environmental impact, it’s clear that more businesses need to adapt and move away from disposable cups. 

James Cropper, a specialist paper company established in 1845, has developed a crucial solution to prevent disposable coffee cups from ending up in landfills. To learn more, I spoke to Rob Tilsley, Fibre Operations Group Leader at the company. 

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Recycling disposable coffee cups: Why is it essential?

James Cropper is a family led business that specialises in advanced materials and paper products. The brand recently developed a practice to upcycle disposable coffee cups into bespoke packaging and paper products. Notably, James Cropper provides packaging paper to esteemed brands such as Chanel and Burberry. 

James Cropper has developed a process to recycle waste materials, specifically the trim from coffee cup production, into its products. “Our quality is driven by the products that we are producing for the end users,” explains Rob, who has worked with the brand for over 17 years. He admits that originally, the company struggled to introduce waste streams into its products without causing contamination. “We recognised that [takeaway] coffee cups were a valuable source to us. We just needed to find a way to separate the plastic from the fibre.”

The initiative began 11 years ago and requires a specific process to separate plastic from fibre. Although James Cropper can only currently recycle plastic-lined takeaway cups, it separates and recycles the plastic, while processing the fibre into its paper products. The fibre undergoes a thorough cleaning before being blended with other fibres and added to a larger pulp. This pulp undergoes a process to make paper, ensuring a high-quality, eco-friendly product.

“When we started [this process], there were only a few types of paper cups available,” Robs says. “Now, there are a myriad of takeaway coffee cups available. However, currently. It’s still only the plastic-lined cups that we can recycle.”

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How are disposable takeaway cups recycled? 

To make its paper products, James Cropper purchases unwashed takeaway coffee cups in bales from other waste companies. This provides value and incentive for companies to recycle the products. The brand pays for the used cups as it sees value in the natural pulp of the product.

As a result, the company has increased its recycling capacity from half a billion to 700 million cups annually. It has partnered with corporations such as Costa and McDonald’s, and waste collectors, including Veolia. It also collaborates with small, independent waste merchants for localised collections. The company’s goal is to incorporate 50% recovered fibre into its paper-making process by 2025. It is currently at 38%. 

It’s important to note that James Cropper cannot recycle compostable or biodegradable coffee cups with an aqueous coating. This is because of the nature of the processes that the brand uses. ‘In our process, the coating actually breaks down and becomes part of the fibre,” Rob says. “The reason this is a problem is the coating [won’t] take any dye, so you’d have a nice black bag but [there may] be white flecks in it.”

Rob adds that compostable coffee cups may not always be the more sustainable option. This is because the cups are often only compostable in a commercial environment and can leave behind non-organic matter. This is why certification for compostable cups is so critical. These cups also hold little value for a second life as the compostable materials are hard to reuse. In turn, this provides little incentive for waste companies to collect them. 

During the recycling process, plastic-lined disposable coffee cups go into a large pulper. “It’s like a giant version of your food blender at home,” Rob says. “We add warm water and chemistry to the cups, which are pulped for nearly 40 minutes. This essentially agitates the cups and breaks them down to a point where the plastic lifts off from the fibre.”

The pulp is then mixed and made into a solution similar to papier mâché. The plastic is removed and the fibre goes through various cleaning systems to prepare it for the paper machines. In these machines, the fibre is blended with other streams before having colour added in a blending chest. When the mix reaches the paper machines, it is still 99% water. 

“The process of the paper machine is to remove that water,” Rob explains. “At the end of the process, you have a reel of paper that is fit for use.” James Cropper works with entities to further incorporate recycled goods into various sectors, such as artist papers for schools and greeting cards for Hallmark. The shopping bags from Selfridges, for instance, are made out of coffee cups recycled by James Cropper. The brand’s efforts extend beyond its own plant, as it shares its knowledge and processes with others to increase recycling rates globally.

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Are customers interested in recycling disposable coffee cups? 

Research shows that a growing number of customers are keen to have products made out of recycled cups. “We saw there was a huge demand,” Robs says. “I think it’s because people can resonate with it: everyone has had a cup of coffee in their hand at some point.” 

That said, Rob explains that the brand struggles to collect enough recyclable cups. However, a mandatory cup take-back requirement will be implemented in the UK, where businesses with over 10 full-time employees will be required to have visible recycling bins on site. 

“This is exciting for us because there should be a lot more cups available to use,” Rob says. “We are working with the Cup Collective in Dublin and Brussels, where they’ll collect cups and bring them back here for recycling.”

The crux is encouraging customers to dispose of single use cups responsibly to ensure they can be recycled. It is the responsibility of the business to educate and encourage customers to do so, to prevent disposable coffee cups ending up in landfill. 

By switching to sustainable to go cups, coffee shops can continue serving coffee to-go while limiting their impact on the environment. Not only will this put them ahead of competitors, it will also improve the sustainability of the coffee supply chain.

At MTPak Coffee, our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable materials such as PET, bamboo fibre, and kraft paper, with an environmentally friendly PLA or Aqueous lining. Our cups are available in three sizes: 4oz, 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 24oz. In addition to being strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable, our cups can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to customise your cups to your specifications, allowing you to feature your brand logo or recycling instructions. 

For more information on bespoke disposable coffee cups, contact our team

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Esther Gibbs
Esther Gibbs

Esther has been in the specialty coffee industry for 14 years working as a Q Grader, SCA Trainer and ESTA trainer. She’s also offers her services as a coffee consultant through Hope Espresso. Her passion for writing comes from her love of sharing stories about the industry and ensuring knowledge is accessible to all.

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