The UK’s largest coffee retailer, Costa Coffee, has committed to recycling half a billion coffee cups a year by 2020 in a landmark act to tackle plastic waste.
The pledge, which amounts to recycling the same volume of cups it puts onto the market, would take a significant chunk out of the 2.5 billion takeaway cups thrown away across the country every year.
Despite often being marked as recyclable, the vast majority of paper coffee cups end up on landfill or being incinerated due to the plastic lining used to make them waterproof.
By paying waste collectors to take coffee cups to specialist facilities, Costa hopes to massively increase the rate at which cups are recycled.
Ultimately, all a customer will need to do to ensure their cup avoids landfill is throw it into a standard recycling bin.
The move is the most ambitious so far by a major coffee chain since the start of The Independent’s Cut the Cup Waste campaign.
Launched following the Environmental Audit Committee’s report recommending ministers take drastic action to tackle coffee cup waste, the campaign has pushed for action from governments and businesses and promoted potential solutions.
“The Independent’s campaign has highlighted the importance of finding a solution to this issue,” Costa managing director Dominic Paul told The Independent.
Starbucks has pledged £7m to develop a “fully recyclable cup” following pressure from campaigners, while Waitrose has pledged to phase out disposable coffee cups from its stores by autumn.
But as Peter Goodwin – co-director of recycling scheme Simply Cups – told The Independent, the facilities already exist to recycle disposable coffee cups.
“There is plenty of infrastructure that could take a hell of a lot more cups than are currently being recovered,” he said.
There are currently three UK paper mills that can deal with cups – James Cropper, ACE UK and DS Smith – that have the combined capacity to recycling more than 4.5 billion takeaway cups.
Mr Paul said this was something Costa was acutely aware of when looking for a way tackle the waste from their shops.
“The main issue is that effectively the price per tonne to the waste management companies received for cups has meant it hasn’t been economic for them to take the cups to the paper mills – there hasn’t been enough profit it in it for them,” he said.
“We realised that was actually the hurdle we had to overcome if we were going to cut through this, and as the market leader we felt we should.”
To address the shortfall, Costa Coffee has agreed to pay an additional £75 per tonne to waste management companies, making it economically viable to transport cups to the paper mill.
In doing so, it predicts the number of cups recycled at the UK’s facilities will rise from 14 million cups to 100 million this year.
The company has entered into a partnership with five national waste collectors – Veolia, Biffa, Suez, Grundon and First Mile – that between them cover public spaces across the UK including hospitals, universities and transport hubs.
The coffee giant is also working with paper mills to ensure their products are recycled effectively. James Cropper, for example, has plans to “upcycle” 500 million cups a year to create plastic-free packaging.
“We’ve developed these processes over a number of years because we recognise the need for brands to consider their packaging design and explore plastic-free alternatives,” said Phil Wild, chief executive officer at James Cropper.
By building more partnerships with waste contractors in every region, Costa intends to hit its half a billion mark within two years.
With one report predicting the number of takeaway drink cups thrown away in the UK is set to rise by a third by 2030, and the government recently failing to back a “latte levy” to discourage cup use, it falls to businesses to act on the huge amount of waste from their products.
Commenting on the announcement Environment Minister Therese Coffey, said: “Congratulations Costa on taking this significant step to help coffee lovers do the right thing and increase recycling. We all have a responsibility to our environment and this is a significant step by a British business which should dramatically increase the number of disposable coffee cups we recycle in this country.
“We want to help companies become plastic free and through our 25 Year Environment Plan we are putting in place the ambitions to encourage all of us to play our part in ending the scourge of plastic waste in our natural environment.”
“We’re hoping that via this announcement our other competitors will come on board with us as well – we can’t see why they wouldn’t,” said Mr Paul.
Concern about plastic waste,and the harm it is causing to the marine environment in particular, has led to many communities up and down the UK attempting to eradicate single-use plastics such as disposable coffee cups altogether.
As awareness has grown among the public, companies have felt the pressure to act on their disposable coffee cup waste.
The Independent’s Cut the Cup Waste campaign has found that the majority of the British public would support a 25p charge on disposable coffee cups, investigated the use of china cups in major coffee chains and featured calls on businesses and government to take responsibility for their waste.
“What the campaigns have done is increase customer focus on this area – quite rightly – and it has actually been helpful for us because it has enabled us to move quicker with some of the waste management firms than we would have done otherwise,” said Mr Paul.
“It’s helping us do the right thing.”
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