Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups Contents

2Coffee Cup Waste in the UK

Scale of Coffee Cup Waste

A Growing Industry

8.Over the last 20 years, the UK has experienced a rapid growth in coffee shops. At the turn of the millennium there were only 5,000 coffee shops in the UK. There are now at least four times as many.9 The Paper Cup Recovery & Recycling Group (PCRRG) told us:

Consumer demand for coffee continues to rise and the number of coffee shops in the UK is forecast to increase from 20,000 to 30,000 by 2025, bringing with it the associated economic benefits, with an associated increase in the demand expected for paper cups.10

9.In 2011, a Which? Report found that 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year in the UK.11 However, as the coffee shop industry has grown considerably since then, this figure is likely to be an underestimate of usage now. Based on the estimate that the UK currently uses 2.5 billion disposable cups, by 2025 coffee shop growth will see the UK using approximately 3.75 billion disposable cups per year. However, Eunomia Research and Consulting have suggested that the UK may already use as many as 5 billion coffee cups per year.12

10.Market research has predicted that by 2025, the coffee shop industry will have an annual turnover of £15 billion.13 According to data from 2016, the largest retailer of coffee in the UK is Costa Coffee with 1,992 outlets, followed by Starbucks with 849 outlets and Café Nero with 620 outlets. Supermarkets have also been tapping into the market for coffee with Tesco and Morrisons the 4th and 5th largest coffee retailers respectively, followed by Pret A Manger.14 We received written evidence from the UK’s two largest coffee chains, Costa Coffee and Starbucks. Costa Coffee’s Energy and Environment Manager, Oliver Rosevear, also gave oral evidence. We were disappointed not to receive written evidence from any other major coffee retailers, despite attempts to engage with them. Their silence speaks volumes.

11.The UK produces 30,000 tonnes of coffee cup waste each year. This accounts for 0.1% of total UK waste and 0.7% of UK packaging waste.15 Although coffee cups do not make up a large proportion of UK packaging waste, we chose to focus our inquiry partly on coffee cups because of the growing public awareness of their low recycling rate, and tangibility as an environmental issue. We were told that the total annual coffee cup waste in the UK is enough to fill London’s Royal Albert Hall.16


12.Eunomia estimates that around 4% of disposable coffee cups are littered, equating to 500,000 each day.17 Keep Britain Tidy told us that, in a survey of litter on 900 sites across the City of London in 2016/17, 170 sites had some form of branded coffee item littered on them. Non-alcoholic drinks-related litter, including coffee cup waste, is the third most prevalent litter type after cigarette butts and chewing gum, according to Keep Britain Tidy’s 2014/15 Local Environmental Quality Survey of England.18

13.Litter breeds littering. We heard that large litter items such as disposable coffee cups often act as ‘beacons of litter’ - a social norming cue which encourages further littering. Through a comprehensive, DEFRA-funded field experiment on beacons of litter, Keep Britain Tidy found:

While plastic bottles (and indeed coffee cups) are not the most littered items in the country, they are one of the most visible items littered, with instantly recognisable branding, and their presence creates disproportionately more littering as a result.19

14.The field experiment involved using test and control sites; some littered with so-called ‘beacons’, such as drinks containers and crisp packets, and others with no beacons planted. Keep Britain Tidy’s Centre for Social Innovation suggest that the visibility of ‘beacons’ litter “appears to prompt others (either consciously or subconsciously) to do the same with their ‘beacons’ items.”20

Mixed Messages: Are Coffee Cups Recyclable?

Plastic Lining

15.While disposable coffee cups are recyclable in specialist facilities, they are not currently widely recyclable in most local authority recycling centres. In the UK, less than 1 in 400 (0.25%) coffee cups are recycled.21 The Confederation of Paper Industries told us that “paper cups cannot be regarded as generally recyclable.”22

16.In order to ensure that disposable cups conform to health and safety requirements, they are made with paper fibre and a 5% polyethylene lining which is bonded together under a high heat. This use of mixed material ensures the strength and safety of the cups, but it renders the cups difficult to recycle. Although both the paper and plastic components of disposable cups are recyclable, the materials need to be separated out, which is a more complicated process than traditional paper is recycling. Richard McIlwain from Keep Britain Tidy told us about the technical difficulties of recycling coffee cups with plastic linings:

It is because there is a very tightly bonded polyethylene liner that prevents the cup from basically soaking up the contents of the liquid. Because that is tightly bonded it is quite challenging to remove it in a normal paper mill process, is my understanding. For that reason, it can either contaminate the paper stream or it can slow the paper stream down in terms of having to operate a slower process to recover that polyethylene liner. For that reason, paper mills don’t like to accept them. They would want paper and card without that plastic liner.23

17.We have heard that due to these technical complexities of recycling disposable cups, there are currently only three recycling facilities in the UK which have the ability to recycle coffee cups; James Cropper PLC, ACE UK and Veolia.24The use of specialist facilities requires disposable cups to be separated from other materials for recycling at collection and sent through a separate waste stream. Therefore, even if a disposable coffee cup is placed in a paper recycling bin, it is unlikely to be recycled due to the logistical difficulties involved in processing coffee cups separately to other recyclable waste. The Local Government Association expressed frustration that disposable cups need to be dealt with separately to other paper waste:

Most coffee cups have a plastic coating that must be separated from paper before recycling, which ordinary paper recycling systems are not set up to do. In some cases, coffee chains are making recycling more difficult for councils because the coffee cup materials are getting mixed up with the paper that many householders have taken time and trouble over collecting, resulting in more waste going to landfill.25


18.Another significant barrier to the widespread recycling of disposable coffee cups is the challenges of recycling packaging that has come into contact with food or drink. This wider issue of all paper food packaging being regarded as ‘contaminated’ by waste reprocessors was raised by Oliver Rosevear from Costa Coffee:

One of the challenges we see in terms of recycling - Martin mentioned the contamination issue - is that a lot of paper recyclers in the UK will not take any food packaging if it has had food contact on it. Currently, under the good manufacturing practice that exists through CPI [Confederation of Paper Industries], there is zero tolerance on food or organic contaminants in paper that has had food contact. That is a much wider issue than just cups.26

19.EN643 - the UK’s manufacturing standard for the paper industry - classes all disposable cups as ‘prohibited material’ as they have been in contact with food or drink.27 We heard that prohibited material cannot be used in the production of new food packaging, which is what most UK paper mills create.28 We received evidence from the Confederation of Paper Industries that suggested that paper mills would still find it difficult to cope with the plastic linings in new disposable cup designs as they drag fibres with them, adding to the overall cost of the recycling process.29

20.We received evidence from several manufacturers of disposable coffee cups who claim their cups could be recycled in the UK’s current paper reprocessing mills.30 British company Frugalpac told us they have developed a cup that can be recycled alongside other paper materials. The plastic liner in a ‘Frugal Cup’ is lightly glued in place so that it separates quickly, easily and in one piece, when the cup is repulped.31 Frugalpac CEO Martin Myerscough outlined the potential of recyclable cups:

The answer is quite simply to change the cups. If you change the cups, it does not cost you anything. There are other people designing cups. What we are calling for today is that we design a standard [ … ] You could switch in a couple of years, three years all over to recyclable cups.32

21.The use of disposable cups that are difficult to recycle and the lack of specialist reprocessing facilities in the UK results in fewer than 1 in 400 being recycled. Although we have heard that the introduction of a “recyclable cup” would present a simple solution to coffee cup waste in the UK, we heard little substantial evidence about how these cups would meet the manufacturing standards that prohibit contaminated containers from entering mainstream waste recycling. Therefore we believe that more research needs to be done to establish whether contamination is a significant and justified barrier to widespread uptake of these new designs of disposable cups. Although Starbucks has explored the potential of using Frugal Pac cups, there has been no widespread trial or collaborative research as yet. As a large and growing industry, coffee shop companies should work together through the existing Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group to agree the design of a disposable cup which can be easily recycled. Research should focus on how the design of paper cups can work around, or with, the manufacturing standard for “contaminated” paper packaging by exploring ways of recycling coffee cups with other contaminated food packaging.

Consumer Confusion

22.We received evidence highlighting that consumers mistakenly think disposable coffee cups are widely recycled. A Which? Report from 2011 found that 8 in 10 consumers believed disposable cups were being recycled33 and, in line with this, a Mintel report found that 9 in 10 consumers try to dispose of their disposable cups in recycling bins.34 The Confederation of Paper industries said in their written evidence:

Consumers have been led to believe that laminated cups are widely recyclable and widely recycled through conventional systems when in fact, relatively very few pass into a reprocessor and even fewer are properly processed to extract the full value of the resources they contain.35

23.Consumers dispose of their cups in recycling bins, which creates issues for councils who have to use extra resources to sort through the contaminated recycling waste. The Local Government Association expressed frustration at the continuing use of disposable coffee cups that cannot be easily recycled in the current recycling infrastructure:

It is frustrating that the hard work of councils in improving recycling rates is being damaged by a lack of recyclable paper cups. Councils are doing everything they can to try and tackle the challenges around recycling coffee cups but they need the industry to take more responsibility.36

24.We heard evidence that the use of the Mobius Loop symbol (see Fig.1) on some coffee cups has contributed to public misunderstanding that coffee cups are widely recycled. Gavin Ellis, Co-Founder of environmental charity Hubbub explained:

Most consumers would look at that and think that if they put that in their mixed recycling bin, let’s say, on the street, that it will get recycled. That is likely to not be the case.37

Fig. 1: Mobius Loop Symbol

25.Richard McIlwain from Keep Britain Tidy also told us that where the symbol is printed can cause confusion:

With coffee cups as well, there has been some confusion often where the cardboard sleeve is recyclable and may have a recyclable symbol on it, and people interpret that then as the whole cup being recyclable. There probably is some work to do on labelling.38

26.We found that the coffee shop industry is keen to emphasise that their disposable cups are recyclable.39 While it is true that disposable coffee cups can be recycled in some in-store bins and bring banks, we believe that emphasising the recyclability of disposable coffee cups risks confusing consumers further about whether they can be recycled in on-street mixed recycling bins. Richard McIlwain from Keep Britain Tidy emphasised the need for more consistent messaging around coffee cup recycling:

Can we create a more consistent mechanism - coming back to the stakeholder chain - around how we recycle cups? Once we have a more consistent mechanism the process of explanation and education is very much more straightforward than we have now with a very complex picture.40

27.Several coffee shop chains in the UK have recently launched in-store recycling schemes for disposable cups. Starbucks and Costa Coffee, the UK’s two largest coffee shop chains, established in-store recycling systems for coffee cups in early 2017. This is a welcome innovation. Costa Coffee told us that they now have in-store recycling points in all 2,000 of their stores in the UK.41 These in-store systems work by collecting disposable cups returned by customers and sending them to a dedicated coffee cup recycling facility. However, we heard that use of these in-store recycling facilities is currently very low as consumers are still disposing of their cups in on-street recycling bins.42 The usage rate of these in-store recycling schemes is discussed later in the ‘Targets and Policy for Coffee Cup Waste Reduction’ chapter. Professor Wouter Poortinga, Cardiff University told us that more explicit and informative labelling would mitigate consumer confusion:

Clearer labelling, of course, will help and it does not only mean that you label what can be recycled but that you also label what cannot be recycled. There is a clear demand for that from consumers because consumers always express this confusion about what to do with paper cups.43

28.While disposable coffee cups are recyclable, they are not recycled. However, we have found that there is a significant public belief that disposable coffee cups are widely recycled. Coffee shops are communicating to customers that disposable cups are recyclable, but it is not clear that they need to be disposed of through separate recycling systems. This confuses the consumer, resulting in the contamination of on-street and office bins and local authority collections as people dispose of disposable cups in mixed recycling. We believe that greater clarity and consistency around recyclability and contamination issues are vital to ensure that consumers do not unknowingly contaminate recycling bins.

29.It is unacceptable that coffee sellers are perpetuating customer confusion though their use of recycling labels and emphasis on the recyclability of coffee cups, despite the shockingly low recycling rate. Coffee shops with in-store recycling schemes should place a ‘recyclable in stores only’ label on their coffee cups. Those without in-store recycling should print their cups with a ‘not widely recycled’ label. We believe this greater consistency will enable the public to make more informed choices about their use and disposal of packaging that cannot be recycled in most public recycling bins.

9 Paper Cup Recovery & Recycling Group (PKG0070A)

10 As above.

12 Q1, Eunomia Research & Consulting (PKG0086A), Paper Cup Recovery & Recycling Group (PKG0070A)

13 Allegra Strategies, Project Café UK 2016

14 As above.

15 Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (PKG0054A), Foodservice Packaging Association (PKG0067A)

16 Local Government Association (PKG0076A), Frugalpac (PKG0050A)

17 Eunomia Research & Consulting (PKG0086A)

18 Keep Britain Tidy (PKG0084A)

19 As above.

20 Centre for Social Innovation, Journal of Litter and Environmental Quality (Volume 1, Number 1, June 2017)

21 Confederation of Paper Industries (PKG0037A), Frugalpac (PKG0050A), Transition Falmouth (PKG0035A), DS Smith (PKG0059A), PCS Union (PKG0042A)

22 Confederation of Paper Industries (PKG0037A)

23 Q5

24 Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PKG0070A) Costa Coffee (PKG0107A)

25 Local Government Association (PKG0076A)

26 Q135

28 Confederation of Paper Industries (PKG0042B)

29 As above.

30 Frugalpac (PKG0050A), Smart Planet Technologies (PKG0049A), Delipac Ltd (PKG0011A)

31 Frugalpac (PKG0050A)

32 Q134

35 Confederation of Paper Industries (PKG0037A)

36 Local Government Association (PKG0076A)

37 Q3

38 Q10

39 Costa Coffee Supplementary Evidence (PKG0040B)

40 Q10

41 Q62

42 As above.

43 Q11

22 December 2017