Solving the disposable cup conundrum

Posted on 26 January 2021.

To keep used cups out of landfills and from incineration, Veolia has set up a nationwide collection and recycling service in the United Kingdom. A first!

The English love coffee! "Today, there are at least four times as many coffee shops as there were in 2000, and one in five people go to a coffee shop every day," says the introduction to a report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published in 2018. Close to half of all hot beverages consumed in these places are sold in disposable cups. As a result, every year in the United Kingdom 2.5 billion cups are used once and then discarded. The composition of these containers means only 1 in 400 cups – or 0.25% - is recycled with the remainder going to landfill or being incinerated.

Disposable cups are made of paper and a thin layer of polyethylene, which are fused together by a heat process. The plastic coating makes the cups strong and watertight, but difficult to recycle. Although both materials can be recycled, they have to be separated first, making processing much more complicated than for paper alone.

A national recycling service…

As you can see, recycling disposable cups is a real challenge – and it’s challenge Veolia is keen to tackle! In 2017, the Group launched a nationwide collection and recycling service for used disposable cups to give companies and public institutions the opportunity to send their cups to a dedicated treatment plant in Essex.

The service begins by collecting the used cups as soon as the consumer has finished their coffee. Dedicated containers are positioned in places where the drink is consumed (coffee shops, businesses, train stations, etc.). These garbage cans are designed so the user can separate the lid from the rest of the cup, place it upside down on a stand to drain off the remaining liquid, and stack it on top of the other cups (a "tipped-it, flipped-it and stacked-it" system). The cups are then collected in a bag and placed in a cardboard box which Veolia will pick up by appointment. Shipped to the Essex-based center, the cups are decontaminated and then sent to plants where the paper is separated from its plastic coating. The paper fiber can then be reused to make new products !

……that’s tailor made

During its development, this unique solution benefited from the involvement of several iconic UK take-away coffee and tea retailers - such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee. Most are long-time customers who all agreed to conduct trials at their outlets. Veolia then set up a system that was tailored to their needs. It was also based on a 2017 consumer usage study conducted by the British firm YouGov, which revealed that a large majority of consumers (88%) were willing to use a dedicated garbage can to ensure their cups would be recycled.

More than two years after the service launched, Veolia's partners are pleased. For take-away coffee retailers, receiving recycled products from the Essex plant, such as small notepads or bags, is a concrete benefit of the operation and an effective tool for raising awareness and communicating with consumers. Continuing its commitment to solving the conundrum of disposable cups, at the start of 2020 Veolia announced the launch of the “Camden Recycles Cups” project, in partnership with the Camden Climate Change Alliance, a network of companies and associations based in the London borough of the same name. The goal? To recycle more than half a million disposable cups!