Why Britain’s 2.5 billion paper coffee cups are an eco disaster

Britain gets through 2.5 billion of them every year, and the number is set to increase. But despite a growing clamour for coffee chains to make their cups more environment-friendly, the vast majority are used only once, which critics say is a considerable waste of natural resources.

One company vying to produce a truly recyclable alternative claims that the UK’s caffeine addiction is responsible for the felling of a million trees a year. An independent study it commissioned suggests that almost 1.5 billion litres of water go into making the cups the UK uses annually.

The study, by product-testing company Intertek, claims to be the first to measure the environmental impact of producing, using and disposing of all types of single-use coffee cup. It found that a typical cup requires 0.58 litres of water to produce and has a carbon footprint equivalent to up to 60.9 grammes of carbon dioxide.

A 2017 report from the UK’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee found that only one in 400 cups end up being recycled, with the vast majority going straight to landfill. This suggests that coffee cups that end up in the UK’s landfill sites produce an annual carbon footprint equivalent to over 152,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, similar to what 33,300 cars produce in a year.

The audit committee called on the government to set a target to recycle all single-use cups by 2023. It said: “If an effective recycling system is not established… by this date, the government should ban disposable coffee cups.”

But a major issue for the industry is that even cups promoted as compostable cannot be recycled conventionally. They have to be transported by lorry to one of the UK’s 53 high-temperature industrial composting facilities, which increases their carbon footprint.

“The problem with conventional, coated and compostable cups is that they’re all made from virgin paper, and the laminated plastic coating is very hard to remove,” said Malcolm Waugh, chief executive of Frugalpac, an Ipswich-based company that produces an alternative called the Frugal Cup, which is made almost totally from recycled paper, and which funded the study.

“Our answer was to redesign the cup by scrapping the laminated virgin paperboard and instead make the cup out of 96% recycled paper with no waterproofing chemicals, and then lightly attach a separately made plastic food grade liner. Not perfect yet but a damn sight better than the alternatives.”

Waugh predicted that using cups made from recycled paper would save a million trees a year in Britain and more than 200 million worldwide.

Producing a truly recyclable coffee cup is a key issue for environmental groups. The WWF forecasts that by 2030 the UK will use 33% more cups than it does now.

Some major chains are starting to act. Last month, Starbucks announced that it is trialling NextGen compostable cups, which are made without the polyethylene lining that makes normal cups hard to recycle.

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