Better World: The problem with coffee cup waste

You may recently have seen Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Wake Up and Smell the Waste!’ campaign on Channel 4 or read about it in the paper. Mr F-W has an admirable record of raising awareness of a number of important animal welfare and environmental issues, often resulting in significant changes to consumer purchases and/or behaviour. He has scored significant successes in championing free range eggs/chickens and more recently food waste, both causes I’m proud to say BTP has a long track record of supporting. His latest laudable charge is aimed at coffee cup waste.

It’s estimated that 2.5 billion “paper” coffee cups are being thrown away in the UK every year, with only ¼ of 1% being recycled. The UK’s biggest coffee sellers are doing very little to address the problem, says Hugh. To make matters worse, Hugh claims the big boys (Costa, Starbucks etc) are being disingenuous by implying, via the display of a recycling logo on their cups, that the cups aren’t ending up in landfill.

Now we take the social and environmental impact BTP has on our local and wider communities very seriously, we’re on a journey to ensure our business is as sustainable as it can and ought to be. So this prompted us to have a good look at where we are with our cups…

We use a Seda cups and plastic lids for all our take away coffees. Seda paper and plastic products are 100% recyclable however the caveat on that is the infra structure within the UK to handle the recycling of 2 sided poly coated paperboard is very under developed. The cups are made from virgin board due to direct food contact with a PE coating and the secondary packaging (outer case) are made from 100% recycled material.

The issues with our cafes and other coffee businesses is that 99% of the take away cups will do just that, be taken away and most will end up in high street bins and then to landfill. We sat down with a company called Vegware, who are a ‘completely compostable’ packaging company to run through their products and the likely waste stream. We concluded that unless we could somehow persuade our customers to hold onto their cups and get them into a commercial composting facility either via their workplace or home, the cups would very likely end up in landfill. Compostable cups do not degrade in landfill.

So it seems to us the key to this debate was to lobby local governments to invest in ensuring their high street bins were able to offer access to commercial composting facilities. So we fired over a couple of emails to the Mayor’s office in Bristol and got the following response from Simon Graham, Contracts and Waste Operations Manager, Bristol City Council…

“BCC do not have a position on coffee cups however to answer your question if they end up in a residents black bin they will either be landfilled or they will go through a sorting process that will convert this element of the waste into a fuel to create heat / energy”.

With this in mind, we decided not to invest the additional £30-40k per annum these compostable cups and lids would cost us, but rather use these funds to invest in what is, in our opinion, the only truly environmentally friendly option, a reusable coffee cup. So we now offer all our customers a 25p discount off our hot drinks every time they use one to takeaway. We also have a new BTP branded reusable cup, so check them out in your local café.

Plus, we’ll continue to badger local governments to invest in some appropriate waste infrastructure and keep an eye on what progress is made with solutions for a completely recyclable or compostable paper cup.

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Update, 26 April 2018 – Since this blog was written we have taken the decision to ban single use coffee cups.