Bosses at the James Cropper paper mill recently received an unusual item in the post: a single used paper coffee cup.
The anonymous — but environmentally conscious — sender had heard the plant in Cumbria was one of just three facilities in the UK that could recycle the plastic-lined cups.
Phil Wild, Cropper’s chief executive, said it showed two things: that the public is eager to recycle; and current collection arrangements were not good enough.
“It shouldn’t cost the price of a stamp to recycle a coffee cup. It should become standard practice — something we do without thinking — and we’re confident we can achieve this,” he said.
The issue of waste leapt to the top of the political agenda this month after the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series highlighted how plastic is choking the world’s oceans, with some 8m tonnes of plastic waste entering the marine ecosystem each year. Theresa May, UK prime minister, pledged to eradicate avoidable plastic waste by 2042.
Only about one in 400 of the 2.5bn disposable cups used each year in the UK are recycled, according to MPs. The paper cups are lined by a thin layer of plastic to waterproof them but because it is hard to separate, they cannot enter recycling systems and are either burnt or buried in landfill. Politicians have called for a 25p “latte levy” on each to reduce their use.
Meanwhile, the EU has set a target to increase plastic packaging recycling from less than 30 per cent to 55 per cent by 2030.
James Cropper, founded in 1845, has the technology to help. What it lacks is the cups to recycle.
The facility began accepting used cups in September 2017 and can process up to 500m annually. But in four months over the past year it has processed just 10m. On a recent visit, the conveyor belt feeding cups into a container that separates out the plastic stood idle for much of the day.
Richard Burnett, who is in charge of the process, says he should soon be busier. “With all the publicity recently we have been inundated, from businesses to local people to coffee chains,” he said.
“It just needs everyone in the supply chain to do something different. It is not an insurmountable problem.”
But so far only McDonald’s, Costa Coffee and Selfridges have signed deals with Cropper.
The company has invested millions in a production line that strips the plastic lining out of the cups so that it can be processed by regular recycling facilities. The company buys the used cups, which are made of high quality pulp that can be reused to make products such as bags once the plastic has been stripped out. Veolia, the waste company, collects, cleans and sorts the cups and bundles them together on a pallet to ship to Cumbria.
Cropper’s “cupcycling” products range from simple bags — including Selfridges distinctive yellow paper bags — to a packaging material called colourfom, which is a recycled alternative to plastic and polystyrene that is used by Lush, the cosmetics firm, for some bath oils.
Mr Wild hopes that it could soon encase smartphones, cosmetics and toys. “It is sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable. Over 90 per cent of the market is still using plastic. And single use plastics are now an environmental ‘no no’,” he said.
But change can be slow — and expensive. McDonald’s began installing recycling collection units for coffee and soft drink cups in 2015 and now has them in more than 1,000 of its restaurants, with about 200 still to go. It declined to say how much it has spent.
A string of other companies — from Coca-Cola to Unilever — have recently pledged to find alternatives to plastic or at least recycle more, driven by consumer demand.
The experience of the drinks carton industry may offer an example of how to increase coffee cup recycling. The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK), which includes companies such as TetraPak, a decade ago set up a recycling system to cope with a growing problem with waste cartons.
The 3bn cartons sold annually in the UK also have a plastic layer. Through a mix of kerbside collection by local authorities and designated collection bins, the industry has increased levels of recycling — though it does not have audited figures of volumes. Ten years ago 6 per cent of local authorities collected cartons, compared with 92 per cent today.
ACE pays a subsidy for loads of used cartons, which are sent to a paper mill near Halifax. From January 1 the facility has been able to handle cups too. Operating on an overall 2 to 1 mix of beverage cartons and cups it could process about 640m cups a year.
There are currently 382 coffee cup recycling points in 97 local authority areas in the UK. ACE is hoping the 263 local authorities who run kerbside collections for cartons will soon include cups too.
Some 14 paper cup makers and takeaway chains have agreed to help fund the system. They include Caffè Nero, Costa Coffee, Greggs, Pret A Manger and Starbucks.
“It is not an insoluble problem. We have a recyclable product. It takes time. We need infrastructure in big buildings like office blocks,” said a spokeswoman for ACE. Half of coffee cups are disposed of at work.
Still, kerbside carton collection costs approximately £82 per 1,000 households, according to WRAP, the waste charity.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, said the onus was on cup makers to change their design to remove the “scourge” of plastic.
Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s environment spokesman, said: “Coffee cups are made of paper coated with a plastic layer which can contaminate other materials put out for recycling. This creates an extra cost for councils and can reduce overall recycling.
“We have long called for industry to step up and show more responsibility in tackling this issue, and councils would be keen to work with producers and discuss how the design and recycling of coffee cups can be improved.”