Disposable coffee cups and their problems

Foodservice packaging association response to disposable coffee cups issue

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

NoPapercupHugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘War on Paper Cups’ campaign swiftly followed by Defra Minister Rory Stewart’s announcement that coffee cups ’seem to be a very good thing to look at next’ has brought paper cup recyclability sharply into focus. The Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) welcomes the raising of this issue by Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall as while great strides have been made to make paper cups recyclable, a lack of consistent infrastructure means the volume being recycled falls a long way short of what should be possible and UK businesses could be missing out on 60 000 tonnes of very quality recycled paper and board annually. It is the sincere hope of the FPA that current debate will act as a catalyst to achieve swift progress and new recycling schemes that are easy to implement across the supply chain.
However the FPA challenges a number of assertions made this week:

  1. That disposable paper cups are not recycled

  2. That retailers are misleading their publics

  3. That retailers are acting arrogantly

  4. That a tax on paper cups, ‘like the bag tax’ is the answer

1. Disposable paper cups can be recycled

Cups can and are being recycled. The FPA has actively encouraged collaboration across the supply chain and the recent FPA Environment Seminar brought together waste management organizations, national and local government, recyclers, food service retailers and caterers and packaging manufacturers and distributors. The new collaboration between McDonald’s Restaurants, James Cropper Papers and Simply Cups was announced at the Seminar and applauded as an example of best practice.

Recycled volumes are however still very low, because recycling paper cups is complex. To recycle the paper the PE coating must be removed, which is not as complex as recent media has suggested. The PE can also be recycled. Separate waste stream collection of paper cups does produce high quality recycled paper and board, however, paper cups can also be recycled and recovered through mainstream waste channels producing acceptable quality and marketable recyclate, saving the use of virgin material. Overall there is the potential to produce up to 60,000 tonnes a year.

2. Retailers are not misleading their publics

Retailers are fully aware of the implications of discarded disposable coffee cups and have actively worked on improving recycling rates on their premises and are collaborating through the FPA to find ways to increase recycling rates once consumers have left the retailer. The FPA meets with foodservice retailers and caterers to agree strategies to increase the volume of foodservice packaging that is recycled and to support their investment in recycling projects.

Retailers have provided consumers with accurate information about the composition of packaging materials in accordance with the law. The FPA does not believe the public has intentionally been mislead, nor that the waste management industry has deliberately mislead with regard to the difficulties involved.

3. Retailers are not acting arrogantly

The retailers have already contributed significant funds into research particularly with the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG).

It is important to understand that paper cups represents a tiny fraction of the UK waste stream and retailers have made huge advances in reducing food and packaging waste and increasing recycling rates across the board.

The FPA has been pushing for the paper cups issue to gain more attention for a number of years and has had to work hard to convince Government and agencies that paper cups offer up great potential and paper cup recycling deserves greater focus and resource. The FPA welcomes the attention that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign is giving to this issue and is actively seeking meetings with the Minister and organisations such as WRAP to kick start initiatives on the back of this campaign.

The FPA believes that more education is needed amongst consumers to recognize that disposable paper cups are a valuable post-consumer resource and must be handled accordingly. The FPA also now urges waste management organizations to look even more closely at the potential offered by paper cups and work with the FPA to realize this potential.

A number of the FPA’s cup manufacturers have invested large sums into the PCRRG. The group also includes foodservice retailers, beverage brands and NGO’s and the PCRRG has been discussing a way forward with the UK waste management industry.

4. A tax on paper cups, ‘like the bag tax’ is not the answer

The FPA strongly believes that the Minister (Rory Stewart, DEFRA) has been severely misquoted and his statement does not say that he is looking at tax as a solution.

The issue of paper cups is not similar to the ‘bag tax’ for the following reasons:

  • Taxing disposable paper cups will not increase recycling rates
  • Taxing disposable paper cups will not affect behaviour of those who litter - the FPA believes changing consumer behaviour through education will achieve this
  • Tax will not prevent 10’s of millions of use paper cups from being discarded

The FPA together with Mark Pawsey MP (Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Packaging) is meeting with DEFRA Minister, Rory Stewart to discuss his intentions. Evidence shows paper cups can be recycled at a fraction of a charge and that establishing a system for collecting cups and recycling them is far more important than attempting to deter consumers from enjoying coffee in the way they do. It is also generally agreed that a charge on cups will not change the behavior of those who litter.

A meeting has also been requested with Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall.

The FPA also works closely with the Paper Cup Recycling and Recovery Group consisting of paper cup manufacturers, beverage brands, recyclers and NGO’s. This group has conducted extensive research into the recycling of paper cups. The PCRRG has made a statement which the FPA is pleased to endorse.

OK, so much for the statement from the FPA and the PCRRG. Now, though, let's look at the reality and the truth.

It would appear that the industry, including the recycling and recovery group are intend on deliberately misleading the public and everyone else.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is complete correct that something mus be done to get away from the one-way drinks cups, whether they are paper, Styrofoam or plastic.

The majority of paper cups are not simply paper but a paper that is lined with either a wax or, worse still, with a plastic coating and thus a separation is almost impossible of paper from the liner and in most cases therefore those “paper” cups are not recycled as they are, basically, not recyclable in most places. While this is often due to lack of the technology to do this it still means that the majority of those cups end up in landfill or incinerators.

However, a “paper cup tax”, as suggested by the Minister is, alas, also not going to make any difference whatsoever and that is where the FPA is correct. It will not prevent those cups from being thoughtlessly tossed and thus ending up in landfill. All that such a tax will do is simply put money in the coffers of the Treasury, which more than likely is the reason for this idea in the first place, but will do nothing to alleviate the problem.

The only way forward is an outright ban on paper or plastic cups in use in the foodservice industry, in the same way as plastic flatware should be outlawed, and instead have the outlets take up a system by which they initially sell to the customer reusable coffee cups, such as KeepCup and giving people bringing their own cups a small discount.

Starbucks, and I am no friend of theirs generally, is taking the right steps with this.

P.S. Now please no one ask me what “publics” are or what “recyclate” is. I did not write the statement by the industry and thus have not got a faintest idea as to how they have managed to butcher the English language.

© 2016