What am I supposed to do with this cup?

We get through 5,000 disposable paper coffee cups a minute, but very few of them are ever recycled. Why? Sophie Thomas, of design studio Thomas.Matthews, lays out the problem 

The quote on the side of our meeting room coffee jug says it all. ‘Coffee first. Schemes later.’ I don’t think our studio is unique in its love for coffee. I imagine that coffee serves as one of our industry’s primary fuels. Many a late night is sustained by shots of espresso, making sure we hit that deadline. The question is, at what cost?

1. A small fraction of the 5,000 cups per minute that we consume in the UK

In the early years of the Thomas.Matthews studio we did a quick count of cups of coffee consumed in a day. I am particularly keen on the substance and am often avoided by fellow workers until I have had my first sip. However, even I was surprised by the sheer quantity. It averaged out at seven cups a day. Four of these were bought from the local cafe, equating to £9 a day, £45 a week – £2,025 a year spent on coffee. In fact, Britons spent £7.9bn in coffee shops in 2015 and it’s a growing market set on a path that could see it double over the next decade. Coffee is big business. Yet, alongside the operations of supplying coffee to the masses is the fact that in the UK, unlike in Italy, we love to drink it on the run, and a hot beverage needs a specific container to transport it in.

The UK produces five billion paper cups a year and throws away a staggering seven million of these disposable coffee cups every single day (that’s 5,000 a minute)

The disposable coffee cup has seen a lot of press recently, and well it should have. The UK produces five billion paper cups a year and throws away a staggering seven million of these disposable coffee cups every single day (that’s 5,000 a minute). However, less than 1% of this waste stream makes it to the recycling plant, even though the main material – over 70% – is high quality virgin paper. The clue to the problem is in the misleading name – ‘disposable’.

2. Cups after collection and baling (many of the waste cups are pre-consumer waste e.g. printing rejects)

This object suffers from the same identity issue as a lot of packaging; once it has fulfilled its job of keeping food fresh or cold, hot or clean, delivered to your door or desk, it then loses its value, and in fact takes on a negative value, being annoying to get rid of. What do I do with this sticky, smelly thing now? Where are the bins? Which bin should it go in?

3. Cups shredded and ready for the separation of the paper from the polythene liner

But we are wrong to think there is no value in a used cup once the coffee has been drunk. The engineering behind the takeaway cup is pretty extraordinary. There are  two curves to deal with when creating the cup shape. This demands a lot from the cellulose of the paper – too much for a recycled stock with its shorter fibres. You need a virgin material for it not to fail, prompting claims that it takes at least 100,000 trees a year to fuel Britain’s coffee habit. Then you have the bonded polythene layer inside to make it waterproof. This bond is so strong that it is very hard to pull apart the two materials. And so, the recoverability becomes economically unviable for the majority of recycling facilities.

4. Laminate packaging that has been separated in the recycling processing. The UK consumes around 60,000 tonnes of cartons each year. These consist of 75% wood fibres, 21% polymer (plastic) and 4% aluminium. The reprocessed cartons are split into paper pulp and a mix of aluminium and polymer. This plastic and metal mix is currently not recycled as it can’t yet be separated in an economically viable way. It is being stored until a process is fully developed.

With 5,000-cups-a-minute streaming through our lives, and most of us having general confusion as to what bin they should go in, cups end up in every bin everywhere. And who owns the problem? We do not have Individual Producer Responsibility for cups. Once they’re empty of coffee and become waste they are our problem to dispose of. We often put them in the recycling bin, hoping they will get recovered but only 1% do. They are either incinerated, where we recover their calorific value in energy from waste plants, or they are buried in landfill where they give off methane whilst they slowly degrade. There is little research on how long it actually takes for a disposable cup to break down in the environment on its own. The quality of the paper means it could take at least two years to start decomposing with the polythene taking up to 30 years.

With 5,000-cups-a-minute streaming through our lives, and most of us having general confusion as to what bin they should go in, cups end up in every bin everywhere. And who owns the problem?

So what can be done? For me, design will be the key, not just in the cup design, but in systems and materials spec, too. In business, consortiums like Simply Cups have been working on building a collaborative cohort of companies that brings together every part of the supply chain and beyond; retail to producer, user to collector, paper mill to reprocessor, waste manager and collection service provider. What comes out from the cups that are sorted, baled, shredded, separated and cleaned is a high quality paper pulp suitable for luxury packaging and card which is high in value.

5. Paper and polymer mixed pulp. In this mix the paper still has value (it was virgin paper), so the fibres are still long and strong – usable in industrial tubing and packaging

The interesting thing about this approach is the scope there is to expand out, both in R&D and new business models. Companies are now working with them; like the coffee roasters who close the loop by offering a complete service of bean delivery and spent grounds collection (that they use to fuel their roasting machines). Simply Cups have also been looking at designing out the polythene layer altogether in order to create a cup that is easy to reprocess. More obviously there are those who have replaced the disposable cup altogether. Keep Cups have much the same thermal properties as a paper cup (i.e. good for ten minutes, which is long enough for me), and are durable and reusable with added feel good factor.

6. Shredded and pulped paper and polythene mixed up

What about levies and tax options? A few years back, Simply Cups mentioned that if we could add 5p onto the price of every coffee drunk from a disposable cup we would be able to fund recycling for every single cup thrown away in the UK. Last year the Liberal Democrats motioned a paper in Parliament that proposed such a tax, to follow on from the success seen with carrier bags. This kind of model not only builds funds, it actively discourages the use of disposable stuff. (In July 2016 the government estimated the bag charge would result in six billion fewer plastic bags being used during the year and that £29m had been raised.)

7. Processed and usable paper pulp from coffee cups

What is pretty obvious to me is that with this sheer amount of packaging waste, with its complex bill of materials, cups must be designed to factor in the ‘end-of-life’. Our current technical/marketing brief should stop thinking of the materials as having no value after they have fulfilled their original use and start to demand design for second, third and fourth life. The fact that we can recycle paper fibres around six times in order to extract the maximum value (the same as plastic) shows us the potential and untapped value we are giving up too early just because we have designed something that does not consider the whole life. And, to me, that is just not good design anymore.

8. Thomas.Matthews business cards. Digital Indigo print onto ‘Coffee’ paper (mocha), the cups were collected by Simply Cups, reprocessed and made back into paper by James Cropper’s Reclaimed Fibre Facility based in Cumbria, UK.

Sophie Thomas is founding director of studio Thomas.MatthewsPhotographs by Peter Clarkson

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