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Recycling storm in a coffee cup?

Apparently, 2.5 billion takeaway beverage cups are discarded without recycling in the UK every year - more at www.remsol.co.uk

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were quoted in a Daily Mail article yesterday complaining about how very few of the takeaway cups supplied in coffee shops get recycled after use. They say it’s a shocking waste of resources and something that can be easily fixed. Is it?

Apparently, an estimated 5,000 paper cups are thrown away every minute. It’s claimed that only 1 in 400 get recycled, meaning that 2.5 billion coffee cups a year aren’t.

The coffee chains are being singled out for all the criticism, some of which is deserved, but society at large is mostly to blame.

These big chains, like Costa, Starbucks and Cafe Nero, have no control over how their customers discard their cup after consuming the product inside. If consumers decide not to seek out an appropriate recycling receptacle and just lump in into the nearest bin with all the other non-recyclable waste, then that’s on them.

That’s why, as companies that are obligated under the Packaging Waste Regulations, the major coffee chains each have to do their bit by effectively paying a levy on every bit of packaging (which a takeaway coffee cup is) that they supply. The levy buys Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) and the money raised is used to build recycling capacity.

The real issues here are: (1) it might be better for coffee chains to introduce reusable cups on some sort of rental or deposit basis; (2) if single-use cups remain the mainstay, consumers need to have better access to on-the-go recycling bins; and (3) material collected for recycling needs to actually get recycled.

The trouble with reusable cups is that they consume resources to manufacture and then washing them with soapy water, in devices that run on electricity, creates a new and different set of environmental burdens – according to a Waterwise study in 2006, a dishwasher typically uses 12 to 16 litres of water per cycle.

Street furniture for on-the-go recycling isn’t cheap, and has to be funded by local authorities which are already having to cut some street scene services because of budgetary pressures. And, of course, it creates additional collection costs because now you potentially have two vehicles servicing to different types of waste in the same street, where before it all went in one.

And if we want to ensure sufficient recycling capacity exists, someone needs to fund that too. The private sector will respond to demand, if it’s there, but when campaigners  start making noises about reducing the quantity of feedstock available, it risks spooking investors and no new capacity will get built.

All of which means it’s not as easily fixed as some are saying.

The reality is that, as counter-intuitive though it may initially seem, discarding 5,000 lightweight paper cups every minute and seeing them go to landfill might actually be the best overall environmental option, all things considered (though, in truth, they’re just as likely nowadays to be baled and sent to continental Europe to be burned in waste-to-energy incinerators, where other countries extract the latent energy content and charge us for the privilege…but that’s a whole other topic!)

And yes, that’s my Starbucks cup. Next time you order one, tell them your name is Voldemort, it’s great fun.

What do you think? Sustainability is about trade-offs, and this is a great example of that in action. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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