It’s a cup half-full for recycling

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Hannah Osman photo
Hannah Osman, National Cup Recycling Manager, Valpak by Reconomy
15 May 2024

With disposable cups passed over in the packaging EPR draft, cup recycling may appear to have lost its way. A great deal has been achieved through raised awareness around reusable cups and brand investment in collection logistics. We need to build on this work to maintain momentum.

According to Valpak research produced for WRAP*, half a million single-use paper cups are thrown away in the UK every day. Some of these originate from high street coffee shops, while others are filled and sold at machines and canteens.

Large brands have done their best to encourage recycling – the voluntary National Cup Recycling Scheme for large enterprises, which Valpak administers, offers a financial incentive to waste collection firms for collecting cups as a segregated waste stream and ensures that accurate figures are recorded. Segregated cups are manufactured into high quality products ranging from sustainable stationery to Remembrance Day poppies. However, despite the UK having the capacity to recycle every cup placed on the market, in 2019 we recycled just 89 million cups, or 2.8 per cent.

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compartmentalised indoor recycling bin

Until recently, cups were expected to be included in the new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging regulations. However, this month, Defra announced that cups would be removed while further consultation takes place. For now, the plan is to return to the issue at a later date, potentially giving cups their own strand of legislation.

The delay brings a number of ramifications. While we don’t have figures for end routes, we can deduce that, at best, over 97 per cent of the 4.2 billion fibre-composite and plastic cups placed on the market in 2019 will be disposed of in residual waste bins. At worst, a high proportion will end up littering our streets and countryside.

For local authorities, either eventuality comes at a cost. As councils look for ways to reduce waste management costs, finding new ways to recycle is key. Gate fees for energy from waste and landfill – with the associated Landfill Tax – add to the waste management budget, so local authorities are looking for ways to divert more or, even better, reduce waste before it appears in collections.

All of the paper cup recycling recorded for the UK so far is a result of the cup scheme initiative and last year, with the launch of our Cup Box, Valpak expanded its service to smaller outlets. We support organisations with collection boxes or with collecting data to show results, and encourage all those that provide staff or customers with drinks in disposable cups to get involved. 

Legislative progress may have stalled, but with enough capacity in the UK to recycle all the fibre-composite cups generated every year, opportunities are still available to make a difference within our own organisations.

* Single-Use Cups and On-the-Go Fibre-Composite Food Packaging

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