A guide to takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes

Esther Gibbs
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December 23, 2022
A guide to takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes

In theory, recyclable takeaway coffee cups are an innovative and promising product. 

However, the age-old question is where can they be recycled? Many paper coffee cups are unable to be recycled or composted at home and have to be taken to local recycling points. 

This reliance on customers to take their used coffee cups to a recycling centre means less than 1% of takeaway coffee cups are recycled in the UK alone. As a result, several takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes have been developed to help tackle the single-use plastics waste crisis. 

To find out more about these takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes, I spoke with sustainability expert, Kerri McCarton, and the co-founder of Cup Neutral, Ben Ferrer.

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An image of recyclable kraft paper takeaway coffee cups in a cafe or coffee shop in an article about a guide to takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes

The problem with recycling takeaway coffee cups 

Kerri McCarton from the UK Green Building Council says the first issue with recycling takeaway coffee cups is responsibility.

“That’s a big caveat in the conversation,” she says. “Who does the responsibility sit with? Is it the government, the individual, or the cafe?” 

In the current system, Kerri explains the responsibility is often pushed upon the individual consumer to remember their reusable cup.

In turn, this has pushed the responsibility of the cafe to absorb the cost of the takeaway coffee cup or provide incentives such as a reduction in price for customers who bring their own reusable cups.

“However, this is unlikely to shift customers’ behaviour,” Kerri explains. “Negative reward is more likely to push change, such as taxing cups. This has been trialled at University College London and has provided quite a positive change.”

Only one in every 400 takeaway coffee cups is recycled. “Of that, an even smaller percentage of recycled cups go through the full recycling process,” Kerri explains. This is often because the takeaway cups must be a specific material grade or meet certain conditions. 

For instance, the cups will go through a washing process, just like coffee. “However, this is an incredible water and energy-intensive process. Therefore, in the long term, many of the recycling programmes we rely upon may not be the best option,” Kerri says.

“Getting everyone to sit in and drink coffee is the best solution, however unlikely,” Kerri laughs.

Ben Ferrer, co-founder of Cup Neutral, believes there is nothing inherently wrong with the recyclable cup. 

“The cup is great! The problem lies in getting it from the customer to the recycling plant,” he explains. “There aren’t many recycling plants in the UK, and the cups are so cheap that often, it’s not worth transporting them unless there are many in one place.

“That’s what Cup Neutral is addressing. We’re collecting a great number of cups in one place, and getting them recycled.” Ben says.  

An image of a white polystyrene takeaway coffee cup, a recyclable paper takeaway coffee cup, a kraft paper coffee cup and a kraft paper takeaway coffee cup sleeve in an article about a guide to takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes

A guide to takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes

Several takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes are working to help tackle the takeaway coffee cup crisis. 

For example, in the City of Westminster, London, the local council has equipped street cleaners with coffee cup recycling bins as part of the Good-to-Go Coffee Cup recycling programme. 

Additionally, they provide an incentive for customers: a free reusable flask for the first person to recycle their coffee cup each day.

Another example is Veolia: a waste management company that works with a parcel courier to collect used paper cups. Customers put a clear plastic bag inside a cardboard box and then place the stacked cups inside for collection. 

The takeaway cups are delivered to Veolia, ready to be sorted and recycled into new material as part of the circular economy.

Loop is another global platform looking to reuse products by collaborating with brands and creating refillable versions of their single-use products. 

The goal is to make these items as convenient as single-use. They are managed by TerraCycle, which collects and recycles hard-to-recycle rubbish in 22 countries.

Circular&Co make reusable coffee cups out of recycled single-use paper cups. The cups are designed to last for 10 years and can be recycled or returned for a discount on the next purchase.

Valpak, also known as the National Cup recycling scheme (NCRS) was launched in 2018 by Costa. NCRS sees major retailers working together to create a system for collecting and recycling paper cups. 

It aims to make it commercially attractive for waste collectors by offering incentives to collect paper cups. For instance, collectors may earn £70 per tonne of cups as well as the commercial fee from the recycling facility for the material. The brand started with 5 collectors and now has 20.

Last, is Cup Neutral, which offers a fully recyclable cup and a collection scheme. The cup is designed to ensure that even the lid is recyclable. 

For every box of cups purchased, retailers receive a collection bag that holds the same amount of cups. Once full, Cup Neutral collects it and sends it to the recycling plant.

“Cup Neutral is unique because it is the only distributor-led programme in the UK that sells access to the waste stream along with the cup,” Ben explains. “Additionally, it doesn’t matter whose cups go into the bin!”

An image of a barista at a cafe filling two ripple wall kraft paper takeaway coffee cups with espresso in an article about a guide to takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes

How can roasters ensure takeaway coffee cups are recyclable?

When it comes to how roasters and cafes can ensure their takeaway coffee cups are recycled, Ben believes the best route is to take a genuine interest and put in the effort. 

“Pay what you can to either take from the mountain or not contribute to it at all. If you buy and use recyclable cups, make sure they get recycled,” he says. 

More so, partnering with one of these programmes can go a long way in ensuring takeaway cups do not contribute to the mountain of single-use waste. 

While these takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes are unlikely to be the final solution, they are a smart and effective solution to reducing the problem. 

An image of a barista filling six paper takeaway coffee cups with coffee in an article about a guide to takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes

Tackling the takeaway cup crisis is not only about reducing the number of cups we use, it’s also about educating consumers on how to manage them once they’ve been used.

AT MTPak Coffee, we have a line of eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups that includes compostable and recyclable options. 

Our range of takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable and sustianable materials such as bamboo fibre, PET, and kraft paper, with an environmentally friendly PLA lining. 

Our cups are available in three sizes: 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 24oz. In addition to being strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable, our cups can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature a QR code that leads consumers to your website. 

We also offer a range of low minimum order quantity (MOQ) options. This means you can order as few as 500 fully customised units in just five working days.

For more information on sustainable custom-printed takeaway coffee cups, contact our team today.

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A guide to takeaway coffee cup recycling programmes

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