UK groups target paper cup recycling in the UK

Materials World magazine
2 Mar 2016

It is estimated that up to 3 billion paper cups are used in the UK every year, with demand expected to rise. Natalie Daniels looks at what is being done to reduce the number ending up in landfill and incinerators.

The average person uses 75 paper cups per year, but they may not always think about what happens after the cup is thrown away. With the growing love for on-the-go coffee in the UK, paper cup waste is only going to increase, but efforts are being made to drive cost-efficient collection and recycling services and improve paper cups’ environmental credentials.

Unless new landfill sites can be found, the UK is expected to run out of space for its rubbish by 2018, according to the Local Government Association. With up to 103,000 double decker buses worth of waste paper sent to landfill, action has been taken by a number of organisations. 

The problem

Takeaway coffee cups are not as recyclable as they seem. Tim Silverwood, an Environmentalist in Australia told ABC news, ‘The paper, in essence, is highly recyclable, but the plastic lining is what causes complications when it comes to recycling.’ In most cases, these cups need specialist recycling plants to help segregate the paper from the plastic. The plastic lining – polyethylene is used during an extrusion process, where molten coating is applied to untreated paper and then allowed to set. 95% of the PE fibres come away readily during standard recycling processes as found by a study conducted by PCRRG in 2009. The PE is also recyclable. The issue is that many facilities are not set up to extract the PE from the paper when it naturally separates during the standard recycling processes. In addition, lids as well as other cup accessories are segregated as part of the collection process. 

Simple solutions

To help improve paper recycling rates, British papermaker James Cropper has teamed up with McDonald’s to recycle the fast-food chain’s paper cups at Cropper’s reclaimed fibre plant in Cumbria, UK. The trial scheme has been rolled out across 150 of 1,250 McDonald’s UK restaurants so far. The paper cups are collected from McDonald’s and then baled by Simply Cups, the UK’s only paper cup recovery and recycling scheme, before being delivered to James Cropper for reprocessing. 

Helen McFarlane, Sustainability Consultant at McDonald’s UK said, ‘Paper cups constitute about 30% of our packaging waste and this is a great opportunity to ensure that the quality fibre used in making those cups gets another life. We have recently started to introduce recycling stations in our restaurants to allow customers to separate paper cups, and we’re eager to see what this trial with James Cropper and Simply Cups will look like. Hopefully, it will help set up the infrastructure for others to use in future.’

The reclaimed fibre facility separates the paper from the plastic coating. The current process saves 90% of the cup waste, which is converted back into FSC-certified fibre for paper production and the remaining 10%, which is plastic, is repurposed as garden furniture. Peter Goodwin, Director at Closed Loop Environmental Solutions and responsible for Simply Cups spoke to Materials World about the significance of this collaboration. ‘The announcement of the McDonalds and James Cropper partnership is a game changer in the marketplace – they are raising the benchmark and striving for continued improvement. Off the back of this project, I expect to see others follow and wider acknowledgement from the high street within the wider food and drink hospitality market.’ 

Simply Cups, a UK-based cup recovery and recycling service, was established in August 2014 and has since recycled and recovered more than a million paper cups. ‘I think we knew the initiative was going to be targeted towards education and consumer awareness before we gathered momentum. I think, as the issue becomes a greater subject of debate, recycling volumes will spike,’ said Goodwin. 

The initiative provides paper cup manufacturers, organisations operating in the supply chain as well as beverage and hospitality outlets with a solution to paper cup waste. Members include John Lewis, Costa Coffee and Benders, a paper cup manufacturer in the UK. Benders is also a founding member of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG), dedicated to developing collection and recycling opportunities for paper cups and identify and support solutions that sustainably transform used paper cups into a valuable resource. Adrian Pratt, Marketing Manager at Benders Paper Cups, said, ‘The paper cups in the Benders range are derived from virgin fibres, sourced from PEFC chain of custody certified sustainable forestry, to ensure the provenance of the source material in the product. We recognise that the issue concerning the recycling of paper cups stems from the collection process post-consumer use. Paper cups have to be segregated from mixed paper and general waste due to their PE lining. As a founder member of both the PCRRG and Simply Cups, we work on enabling this collection and segregation process and increasing its availability nationwide.’ 

The PCRRG has recently completed a study into the perceived impact of used paper cups on downstream sorting and recovery within a range of different UK MRFs and paper reprocessors. Neil Whittall, Chairman of the group, said, ‘The study identified a number of barriers to downstream acceptance of paper cups in the UK recycling supply chain. Based on the results from this research, the PCRRG has just launched a follow-up project to trial the recovery and recycling of used paper cups in a real-life environment. This trial will allow the group to assess the impact of used paper cups at each stage in the downstream supply chain and to develop a better understanding of the flow of used paper cups from the point of disposal through to the point of paper fibre recovery.’ 

Other efforts to bring recycling rates down are being made by Vegware, a compostable food packaging firm based in the UK, using only paper and card from recycled or sustainable sources. Their coffee cups are lined with plant-based PLA, typically cornstarch, which Vegware claims contains 79% less embodied carbon than plastic. High-heat cornstarch is also used for the lids, reportedly containing 62% less embodied carbon than plastic. 

Collaborations required

A combined effort is needed from both the supply chain and the consumer, according to Whittall. ‘As with most recycling activities, there is always scope to do more, especially as organisations look to move away from linear supply chains and to incorporate circular economy principles into their operations. No individual organisation can manage this in isolation and a number of elements need to be aligned if the value of recovered resources from paper cups is to be recognised and if industries are to be encouraged to overcome current barriers to increase recycling rates,’ he said. 

Despite this, Goodwin seems optimistic about the future.  ‘I think this problem is certainly not being ignored – it is stimulating discussions for those looking for a solution. It has got the airtime it needs and the momentum for people to take action.’ 

For further information about the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group, visit or Benders Paper Cups at