Do return programmes for takeaway coffee cups work?

Tori Taylor
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April 5, 2024
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Many countries have a wide network of recycling bins that service neighbourhoods. That said, this initiative has not always led to recycling success. The majority of waste around the world, such as takeaway coffee cups, is incorrectly recycled and can contaminate other recyclable products. A recycling report from Auckland, New Zealand, illustrates how much this can cost environmentally and financially. 

Over the last two years, Auckland residents incorrectly recycled almost 37,000 tonnes of waste – at a cost of almost $4 million. While the government states many types of waste are placed in the wrong bins, the most common type encountered is single-use takeaway coffee cups. These make up a significant amount of landfill waste, even when they are made from eco-friendly materials such as paper and bioplastics.

A reliance on customers to take used coffee cups to a recycling centre means less than 1% of takeaway coffee cups are recycled in the UK alone. As a result, several takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes have been developed to help tackle the single-use plastics waste crisis. 

To learn more about these recycling programmes, I spoke with Kerri McCarton, a sustainability expert, and Ben Ferrer, the co-founder of Cup Neutral.

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Recycling takeaway coffee cups

Kerri McCarton from the UK Green Building Council says the first issue with recycling takeaway coffee cups is responsibility. “That’s a big caveat in the conversation,” she says. “Who does the responsibility sit with? Is it the government, the individual, or the cafe?” In the current system, Kerri explains the responsibility is often pushed upon the individual consumer to remember their reusable cup.

In turn, this has made it the cafe’s responsibility to absorb the cost of takeaway coffee cups or provide incentives, such as discounts for customers who bring reusable options. “However, this is unlikely to shift customers’ behaviour,” Kerri explains. “Negative rewards, such as taxing cups, are more likely to push change. This has been trialled at University College London and has provided quite a positive change.”

Only one in every 400 takeaway coffee cups is recycled. “Of that, an even smaller percentage of recycled cups go through the full recycling process,” Kerri explains. This is often because the takeaway cups must be a specific material grade or meet certain conditions. It can be challenging for consumers to determine what takeaway cups are made from and how they should be disposed of – unless the information has been printed on the cup or provided by the café.

Beyond this, recycling symbols and resin identification codes can be equally confusing. For instance, a typical single-use coffee cup can be made from compostable paper but lined with low-density polyethylene (LDPE) film. Therefore, disposing of the cup as a paper product would lead to contamination, as would disposing of it as a plastic code #4 product. As this is a growing concern, many governments have taken steps to address these challenges. 

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Do recycling programmes for takeaway coffee cups work? 

Westminster in the UK recently trialled a “good-to-go” programme. This involved placing dedicated coffee cups in bins in set locations, and if successful, it could be implemented across London. Coffee roasters and café owners who are interested in the programme can register to have a bin placed in their area. This collection programme helps prevent cups from contaminating other waste. Then, they can be processed by a dedicated centre with facilities that separate and reprocess the materials involved.

Another example is Veolia, a waste management company that works with a parcel courier to collect used paper cups. Customers put a clear plastic bag inside a cardboard box and then stack the cups inside for collection. The takeaway cups are delivered to Veolia and are ready to be sorted and recycled into new material as part of the circular economy. 

Loop is another global platform that aims to reuse products by collaborating with brands and creating refillable versions of their single-use products. The goal is to make these items as convenient as single-use products. Loop is managed by TerraCycle, which collects and recycles hard-to-recycle rubbish in 22 countries.

Circular&Co makes reusable coffee cups out of recycled single-use paper cups. The cups are designed to last for 10 years and can be recycled or returned for a discount on the next purchase. Costa launched Valpak, also known as the National Cup Recycling Scheme (NCRS), in 2018. NCRS sees major retailers working together to create a system for collecting and recycling paper cups. 

It aims to make it commercially attractive for waste collectors by offering incentives to collect paper cups. For instance, collectors may earn £70 per tonne of cups as well as the commercial fee from the recycling facility for the material. The brand started with 5 collectors and now has 20.

Last, is Cup Neutral, which offers a fully recyclable cup and a collection scheme. The cup is designed to ensure that even the lid is recyclable. For every box of cups purchased, retailers receive a collection bag that holds the same amount of cups. Once full, Cup Neutral collects it and sends it to the recycling plant. “Cup Neutral is unique because it is the only distributor-led programme in the UK that sells access to the waste stream along with the cup,” Ben explains. “Additionally, it doesn’t matter whose cups go into the bin!”

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The importance of educating consumers on recycling

Collecting empty coffee bags and used takeaway cups works to establish a circular economy. In turn, this reduces the need to extract and refine new virgin materials from the planet. A circular economy creates a perspective shift where the raw materials needed to produce the packaging arrive from the consumer through returned recyclable packaging. 

This avoids the necessity of creating more plastic from raw materials such as natural gas, oil, or plants. That said, one of the obstacles to recycling is profitability. If the cost of recycling is higher than the sale value of the resulting material, it may not be feasible for local recycling companies to cover the loss.

When it comes to how roasters and cafes can ensure their takeaway coffee cups are recycled, Ben believes the best route is to take a genuine interest and put in the effort. “Pay what you can to either take from the mountain or not contribute to it at all. If you buy and use recyclable cups, make sure they get recycled,” he says. 

More so, partnering with one of these programmes can go a long way in ensuring takeaway cups do not contribute to the mountain of single-use waste. While these takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes are unlikely to be the final solution, they are a smart and effective solution to reducing the problem.

At MTPak Coffee, we have the expertise to provide business owners and coffee roasters with disposable coffee cups made from high-quality materials that are kind to the environment. Our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from biodegradable or recyclable materials such as bamboo fibre, PET, or kraft paper with an environmentally friendly PLA or aqueous lining.

Our takeaway coffee cups are available in the following sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz, 12 oz, and 24 oz. Beyond this, our eco-friendly coffee cups are strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable. Beyond this, they can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature your brand logo, QR codes, or recycling instructions.

For more information on sustainable takeaway coffee cups, contact our team. 

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