Governments could do more to reduce the number of disposable coffee cups used each year and encourage better recycling options, argues Jack Goldsmith.
In Great Britain alone, 8 million takeaway coffees are bought every day. That’s a lot of coffee. It’s also a lot of cups (not to mention lids and cup holders). However, it’s okay, because according to the big coffee chains, these cups are recyclable. Why wouldn’t we believe that? After all, most are labelled with the recognisable Mobius-loop symbol (three arrows in a triangle) indicating recyclability.
But, the reality is, even these coffee cups are not as recyclable as we might think they are.
Why aren’t these cups being recycled?
While the cups are theoretically recyclable, the cup has a polyethylene lining that is difficult to separate from the cup. Even Recycle Now, the government-funded recycling campaign, state that these cups shouldn’t go into ordinary domestic green bins. That said, Richard Kirkman of Veolia UK and Ireland, says that a small proportion of these cups that come from domestic green bins can be reused as a fuel source.
What does that say about the ethical, environmentally friendly claims of coffee chains? Not much, as one chain demonstrated it removed the recyclable logo from its cups, placing it instead on the optional sleeves.
It’s a similar story to that of bottled water. While nearly all plastic bottles are recyclable, a huge proportion ends up in landfill or worse still out at sea where 10% of all plastic bottles are said to end up creating ecological problems, as well as unsightly pollution.
So what can be done?
Certainly, in the case of plastic bags, taxes have made a big difference. The plastic bag tax, first introduced in Ireland in 2002 and, last year, in the UK have changed the way we shop.
Figures issued by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show a sharp drop in the number of single-use plastic bags issued between October 2015 and April 2016. Could the same type of tax work when applied to plastic bottles and coffee cups?
Unfortunately, the answer to that is probably not. While bags can be easily reused on the next shopping trip, taking bottles and cups back to be refilled at the store is a bit more complex. So tax may not be the ideal solution, unless, of course, a standardised, reusable cup was introduced (and accepted) by coffee shops.
Bottled water is even more problematic as water would have to be dispensed at the store. There are already ‘keep cups’ already available but not all coffee shops are obliged to use them. Legislation could help here.
Another option might be to ban coated cups in favour of ones that are completely recyclable; however, these tend to be more expensive and would result in extra costs for coffee shops and consequently, their customers.
The first fully recyclable cups are already being trialled in UK Starbucks stores. These Frugalpa cups still have a thin layer of plastic, but since it’s lightly glued, it’s much easier to separate at recycling plants.
It was a campaign by celebrity chef and sustainable environmentalist, Hugh Fearnley Whittingshall that led to trial happening at all, emphasising the importance of educational awareness when it comes to issues such as these. Several big chains have now signed up to make greater efforts when it comes to recycling drinks cups.
Education is key
The real key to change is children. If we can educate them to understand the implications of the waste involved with disposable food and drink, then we can really make a difference in future.
There are numerous resources out there that help kids understand recycling and how the environment should be cared for and preserved. Schools need to play their role too and put incorporate issues of sustainability and the environment into the curriculum.
If children can learn to take simple actions now to protect the environment, by abandoning heavily packaged fast food and insisting on using their own cups for takeaway drinks, avoiding bottled water, volunteering for environmentally projects at school and in their neighbourhoods, then the companies responsible for unsustainable packaging will act too.
But it’s also the job of government to do more to force coffee companies to act more ethically and provide the impetus to reduce the amount of packaging we use and enforce recycling wherever possible.
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They may only make up a tiny part of the waste stream, but paper cups represent the tip of a disposable iceberg.