Breakroom: Wake up and smell the waste

The environmental impact of drinking coffee may not be on everyone's radar, but it's been attracting a lot of media attention recently. OPI investigates the story behind the headlines.


It’s no secret that the world is coffee crazy, with over nine billion kilogrammes of it drunk worldwide in 2016 alone. The US is the leading coffee-consuming nation in the world – 64% of adults drink it at least once a day adding up to an incredible 140 billion cups every year.

A considerable amount of that global consumption is now sourced from coffee shop chains and every day millions of people think they’re doing the right thing by throwing their used coffee cup into a recycling bin. But they might be making a mistake – coffee cups, as a matter of course, aren’t easily recyclable. 

The take-out cups from popular brands such as Starbucks, Caffè Nero and Costa Coffee are impregnated with polyethylene to make them waterproof. But this plastic is difficult to remove, making these cups almost impossible to recycle in bulk in a standard processing plant. It requires specialised facilities that are often in short supply – only two plants exist in the UK, for example – though it’s noticeable that countries such as France and the Nordic region where legislation is tougher are far more advanced in this area.

Recycling dilemma

Most cups aren’t even made from recycled material in the first place and use up a huge quantity of virgin-paper pulp. After a brief useful life containing coffee for a few minutes, they’re thrown away, creating waste and leaving a big carbon footprint. If you dispose of a cup in a public recycling bin, it’s highly likely it’ll be diverted to landfill or sent for incineration. In the UK, some seven million cardboard coffee cups are thrown away daily, with just 1 in 400 being recycled. A government enquiry has been launched to look into the environmental damage this is causing and support possible solutions.

Technically, these plasticised containers can already be recycled. And the fact that it can be done means they are often described as ‘recyclable’ and some even show the ‘Mobius-loop’ symbol – the three arrows in a triangle. But in reality, only a tiny proportion will ever actually be reused – a fact most coffee drinkers are unaware of and one which the coffee shop chains haven’t been particularly forthcoming about. To date.

It’s not just coffee cups that are attracting negative environmental headlines at the moment. The aluminium and plastic coffee pods or capsules used in single-serve machines such as Nespresso are difficult to recycle too, so most of them end up in the bin and are being sent to landfill, where they can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

The problems are not insurmountable and a lot of initiatives seem to be launched at the moment, undoubtedly spurred on by all the negative publicity that’s been flooding several of the big coffee-drinking nations.

Specialist recycling facilities can process hot drink cups, for example, by soaking them in a warm solution to separate the polyethylene from the paper fibre. UK waste management firm Veolia, meanwhile, has unveiled plans to develop a new paper-pulping facility that can deal with a greater proportion of disposable cups and reprocess the material into products such as egg boxes and coffee cup holders.

Recycling experts maintain that there are contamination problems that still need to be overcome. Cups containing residual tea or coffee can easily contaminate other types of recycled paper and the plastic lids often get thrown into the mix, meaning additional sorting is necessary or quality can be adversely impacted. Environmentalists further question whether the energy, water, haulage and sorting costs of recycling would actually make the process economically or environmentally unsustainable.

Environmental evolution

Despite these headwinds, some initiatives may hold promise. Costa Coffee is evaluating a product from Smart Planet Technologies, known as reCUP, for use in its stores. This hot-liquid paper cup uses a mineralised-resin coating on its interior surface rather than polyethylene and is fully processable in traditional paper recycling plants. 

In the meantime, Costa is also implementing an in-store recycling scheme for its 2,000 UK store locations that will bring the cups to specialist recycling centres that can accept standard paper cups. McDonald’s is introducing a similar initiative.

In the US, Starbucks has recently come under fire for failing to deliver on a promise it made in 2006 to make its cups more environmentally friendly. The company has responded by saying its cups use 10% of recycled fibre and its hot cup lids are now recyclable. 

But there’s a very long way to go with introducing a fully-recyclable cup for all its global markets. Some Starbucks stores tested out a new recyclable coffee cup called Frugalpac in the summer of 2016. This cup contains a thin plastic liner that is lightly glued to the inside and naturally floats away from the paper in the re-pulping process. Starbucks claims the pulp can be recycled up to seven times.

Other cups lined with polylactic acid (PLA) – a biodegradable polyester derived from renewable resources such as corn starch or sugar cane – are another option being marketed by several different companies. Rather than making them recyclable, it makes them fully compostable (see also ‘A Manufacturer’s View’, page 35).

A scheme to boost disposable coffee cup recycling has recently been launched in the City of London in an attempt to prevent over five million cups a year from the Square Mile ending up in landfill (see tweets below). The City of London Corporation, meanwhile, in conjunction with Network Rail, coffee chains and some employers, is introducing dedicated recycling facilities in offices, shops and streets and aims to recycle approximately half a million cups each month.

Pod progress

Nestlé’s coffee pod giant Nespresso is also attempting to address the issue of recycling its coffee capsules. When they buy the pods, customers are being provided with a storage bag that can take up to 200 used capsules, which can them be dropped off at a collection point or be left on their doorstep for collection. The used pods are then sent for recycling.

Compostable coffee pods are another solution being developed by a number of firms, among them UK start-up firm Halo Coffee which claims to have developed the first fully-compostable pod for home Nespresso machines. 

With awareness of the issues now hopefully greater than ever, all of these initiatives are likely to ultimately ease the environmental burden that disposable coffee cups and pods place on the planet. But in addition to addressing merely the end consumer, the B2B market has an equally important role to play, especially as the breakroom is becoming an ever bigger category for resellers in our sector. 

Read on to find out what two industry experts in the sustainability field have to say about the topic.

The reseller view

Wiles Greenworld, part of UK-based Commercial Group, started doing a lot of work around disposable coffee cup recycling last year when the topic initially got into the public domain in a big way. We talked to several of the major recycling companies we use to see what their approach was.

What London, UK-based Bywaters – which deals with a lot of the first mile recycling in the capital where a good proportion of our clients are based – said, for example, was interesting in the fact that they don’t actually segregate these cups.

They treat it as a low paper recycling grade and if you mix the cups in with your other papers it’s fine – the chemical lining of the coffee cups just gets washed out during the normal process. As long as the quantities of coffee cups are comparatively low, as they probably would be for a small or medium-sized business, it’s not actually a problem. 

Three-pronged approach

Our approach is three-pronged: firstly, for those customers where staff bring in their disposable cups from the high street coffee chains, we recommend that they check with their recycling provider to make sure that they can treat that type of waste and don’t send it down other routes like creating energy from waste or so.

At Wiles Greenworld we also have our own waste recycling streams, the first ones of which were set up by company founder [and now CEO of dealer group Office Club] Toby Robins in the 1990s. The majority of these are free for our customers to use as a sort of backloading offer because we have our own brands and our warehouse with its own recycling centre. This means the quantities we store are high enough in volume and weight for it to be worthwhile for recycling companies to come and collect from us.

Secondly, for customers that want to go down the disposable route and buy those products themselves we offer biodegradable cups from a company called Vegware. It’s a compostable product, so can enter the food composting recycling stream. There’s still work to be done here, but essentially these cups can go into your food waste stream. 

Thirdly – and this is what we would recommend above everything else – we advise our customers to not have disposable coffee cups in the office and instead go down the more permanent cup solution.

KeepCup has become a good partner for us. This Australian company is very much focused on the lifecycle of its producs. KeepCups look very appealing and the UK-produced cups come in a variety of ranges.

It’s not the cheapest solution, but we’re looking at some corporate branding for our larger customers which is a nice touch. It’s a good story and some customers are really engaging with it. Essentially, if you market it in the right way, have the right conversations with your customers and explain the benefits, you will get engagement, uptake and sales from it.  

Overall, we’re seeing a fair bit of consumer demand for more sustainable practices in terms of recycling and waste disposal. Part of my role is to go to our customers as a consultant and give recommendations that minimise our environmental impact from a product point of view. And the coffee cup and coffee pod disposal conversation is a huge one right now.

The UK on the whole is majorly behind in terms of legislation to drive increased recycling rates and other sustainability initiatives, compared to countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland and the Nordic regions.

In my opinion, it’s going to be consumer demand and the responsible attitudes of businesses that will fundamentally drive any changes. With Brexit on the horizon, it will also be interesting to see how many of the European laws in general and on sustainability in particular will ultimately be re-enacted.

The manufacturer view

OPI: Emerald is a company that prides itself on its sustainability. What’s your view on the disposable coffee cup and pod debate?

Ralph Bianculli: Every year six million trees are cut down just to make coffee cups and North America is the biggest consumer of disposable cups by some margin – we use about 65-70% of the world’s total. 

The vast majority of these cups are polyethylene-lined. The biggest challenge with recycling them – they are 90% made out of paper pulp – is that they cannot go into the same recycling stream as traditional paper because of the plastic lining that constitutes about 10% of the overall product.  

To be able to recycle these cups, they have to be put through a process called hydropulping whereby the polyethylene lining is separated from the paper. There are certain recycling groups in the US that will take those cups, separate the different materials, re-bale the paper products and resell them. Hydropulping is a new and innovative industry, but it’s an intensive process, costs a lot of money and I wouldn’t say it’s entered the mainstream yet.

What we at Emerald – as well as other sustainable companies – prefer is to make polylactic acid (PLA)-lined hot cups which means they can be composted in commercial composting facilities. This is becoming an option in a number of progressive US cities such as San Francisco or increasingly now New York City (NYC) because of new legislation.  

OPI: So are all Emerald disposable cups compostable now? 

RB: We’re definitely concentrating on the composting side. However, we’re also taking a completely different look at the manufacture of cups. We’ve just run the first production of tree free hot cups, so instead of using traditional paper pulp, we’re using bagasse, a by-product of sugar cane. The finished goods are made in the USA and the results we’ve had so far have been fantastic. 

If lined with polyethylene, the cups could still go to a hydropulp facility, but if we’re using PLA, these cups are also fully compostable. I believe this is going to become increasingly mainstream, as research shows that we’re fast running out of landfill space here in the US, and we need to channel organic waste out of landfill and into either commercial composting facilities or very sizeable biodigesters.

Some municipalities and local/regional governments have already passed laws on composting organic waste. NYC has recently passed law 1162-A, which mandates that food manufacturing/consumption facilities divert their organic waste to a composting site or use an on-site biodigester to divert the organics into water.

OPI: Do you see demand for compostable products and if so, who’s driving it? 

RB: It’s a mix. I would say that end users are driving the change through proactive vendors like ourselves while everybody in the middle of the chain – distributors, wholesalers and resellers – are largely reacting to the demand that’s being generated through educating these end users. 

OPI: What about reusable cups – would that not be a better option all round, ie eliminate the waste completely? 

RB: That’s a great question and we’ve done a lot of research on reusable mugs. I have a biased opinion I realise, but by the same token I’m also very entrenched in sustainability and as such am trying to be objective. 

There’re a number of economic issues with reusable cups, certainly in the B2B space. The first one is that most reusable mugs are ceramic ones, so they are expensive to begin with, at least a dollar for just one mug. Secondly, there’s a tremendous amount of breakage as well as plain and simple pilfering which adds further to the cost as an employer has to replace them or – depending on the policy – charge employees to do so.  

Thirdly, there’s the washing of the mugs. Say, you have 2,000 people in your office and 60% of them drink coffee every day. That’s 1,200 cups at the very least going through a very water-intensive process, using detergent, labour and often paper towels to dry them.

From an environmental perspective our research shows that you need to use a cup between 65 to 80 times to have a positive environmental impact over using a paper cup. As such, our stance is to create a disposable cup, aka our new sugar cane-based hot cup, as sustainably and with as low a carbon footprint as possible.

OPI: What about the coffee pods – there’s also a lot of debate around their recyclability?

RB: Yes, from the data I know less than 15% of these pods are recycled. The vast majority are going straight to landfill. Composting here is the answer too, in the mid and long term. 

There are already coffee pods out there that are made from 100% compostable zero waste material. Reunion Island has recently come out with its first compostable single cup solution that is more cost-effective than the mainstream pods on the market. And Massimo Zanetti has introduced the first compostable pods to fit in Keurig machines, I believe.

There are doubters, of course, and clearly it’s subjective, but I believe the taste of the coffee coming from all-natural, 100% compostable agricultural-based coffee pods as opposed to that coming out of a plastic container is much better. You can definitely taste the difference. I would also argue that the health implications are better.

Other catering culprits

The environmental issues around coffee consumption are currently taking centre stage in the media, but it shouldn’t be taking all the flack. The food and catering industry is responsible for other sustainability problems too. 

Plastic bottle recycling is one pertinent problem. In Europe more than 1.8 million tonnes of bottles are recycled each year, but that still only represents 59% of those used and much more could be done. In France specifically, plastic crockery and cutlery is to be banned unless it is made from biologically-sourced materials. The law comes into force in 2020 and is part of a French environmental initiative aimed at tackling climate change.

The backlash against plastic is part of a growing trend in several parts of the world. It’s reported that India is responsible for an astonishing 60% of the plastic that is dumped in the world’s oceans every year and its government is taking measures to address this. India’s capital city Delhi has introduced a ban on disposable plastic and in Karnataka, a state in the south-west of the country, no wholesale dealer, retailer or trader can now use or sell plastic carrier bags, plates, cups, spoons or plastic wrap.