LARAC responds to an email from a tired mum thinking about the recycling of her coffee cup

LARAC Office and Mad Mother
1 Sep 2020

Mad Mother is a mother of a toddler. During lockdown she has been inspired to undertake some further research into climate change and has started a blog. She intends to write and publish one letter a week to business owners, industry bodies, law makers and regulators in order to highlight her experiences and help them to help ordinary people make a real difference to the climate.

In the middle of August we were copied into one of her letters, sent to the British Coffee Association, telling us why it was hard to be responsible about take-away coffee cups. She made some suggestions and observations from a recyclers viewpoint. It was refreshing for us as, not a front-facing organisation, we rarely get to see how it is from someone outside the industry. Entitled 'Five things that might make a tired mother think more responsibly about my coffee cup' - it captured our attention and we thought we should respond. Here it is in slightly edited form, followed by some info and response from LARAC:


This week, I considered in detail how I plan to make my choice of coffee more sustainable. In particular, I thought about ...the responsible  disposal of my coffee cup whilst my hands are full of shopping bags and I’m busy trying to organise my toddler. I’ve set out five points for your consideration below:

  1. Further information on why I shouldn’t put the cup in the bin or even the general recycling bin is needed
    I’m ashamed to say that it was only a few months ago I realised I shouldn’t actually be putting my single use, take away coffee cup into the general recycling bin. Whilst I’d like to think that I’m in the minority here, the numbers of coffee cups I now see being thrown into the wrong bins on a day to day basis are sufficient for me ...  to think this is a much wider problem. ...The  cups need to indicate on the sleeve which parts can be recycled and which can’t. Further, although many coffee chains now purport (to) offer (the) specific recycling bins required for their coffee cups, there is often little-to-no information... at the counter regarding the recycling process and what should or should not be done with disposable cups after use.  ..If posters for a similar and refreshed campaign were available to read, or even a video available to watch, as I stood in the coffee counter queue waiting to buy my coffee, then that would ensure I was paying attention to the issue at the right time. 
  2. More bins that I can actually use for my coffee cup are required
    Although the September 2018 white paper Bean to Bin and Beyond notes that several major high street chains have successfully launched onsite disposable cup recycling with specialist waste management companies, the reason for buying coffee in a disposable cup is generally that I’m going to take it away. With the best will in the world, it’s ...unlikely that I’m going to walk all the way back to the coffee shop simply to throw my cup in the bin; what I actually need is an accessible bin that I can throw my cup into on the street, in the supermarket car park, the car, at home or in the office, but ideally at the point where I’ve finished with it. ... It’s also probably worth noting that since the advent of covid 19, it seems none of my local coffee shops are offering access to their own recycling facilities either.
  3. Re-useable cups are fine but expensive to buy and easy to forget
    Whilst a number of coffee chains offer (a) discount on a coffee for customers using their own reuseable cups, ... they are expensive to buy in the first place and easy to forget to pack ... In addition, with covid 19 restrictions, it’s been difficult to find a café that will .. let me use my own cup. I wondered whether ... any consideration had been given to a UK wide ‘rent a reuseable cup’ scheme, whereby the coffee chain asks the customer to pay a small deposit to take their coffee away in a reuseable cup, which is then refunded once the customer has returned the cup to the store for washing.  I note that a ...scheme has launched with some success in the German City of Freiburg and also Berkley, California, where patrons have signed up to a library like system to borrow stainless steel cups (known as ‘Vessel’) with a deposit, keeping them for 5 days and duly returning.
  4. If my toddler thought recycling was fun, I would be more incentivised to do it
    If reusable cups aren’t always feasible, there must be more incentives that could be given for me to make sure I’m making the effort to put my disposable cup in the correct bin. ... I live near a beach where the bins are shaped like bears and penguins; it makes my toddler think throwing her rubbish away is the best thing ever. ... if they (recycling bins)  were more fun to use for children and therefore adults, they would be more noticeable. If recycling officials were paid to walk the streets with coffee cup recycling bins and spoke to people about recycling issues, that would create jobs and make more people think. With sufficient bins available, a small tax or financial penalties for not recycling cups might become acceptable; once reuseable cups can be used again.
  5. Individuals would probably pay more attention to coffee cup recycling if government and industry initiatives were joined up and marketed holistically.
    With all due respect, there seem to be a number of ongoing initiatives at various levels with regards to waste management and recycling of coffee cups, including recommendations on lifestyle choices. For example, the UK Climate Assembly is working on a report due for publication in September 2020, feeding into the work of the UK Climate Committee, detailing recommendations for individual actions on climate change. The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, who are working with the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group, are holding a virtual conference in October 2020. In 2018, the Environmental Audit Committee published a report on Disposable Packaging and Coffee Cups and in 2019, the Scottish Government and the Expert Panel on Environmental Charging and Other Measures published a Knowledge Account on Disposable Coffee Cups. It seems coffee chains across the UK are apparently working on separate projects and developing their own recycling programmes, cup design innovation challenges, and various sustainability initiatives are being pursued by industry bodies. ...  Actively involving the younger generation (and future coffee consumers) in the discussion, listening and acting on their views on the topic of recycling and climate, might also provide the requisite incentive for those businesses who are currently reluctant to make the change.

I thank you for your reading time. .....

With warm regards,

A Mad Mother


LARAC Response and some background info:

  • When the PCRRG was first formed by the coffee cup industry LARAC was invited to participate given the links with local authorities through littering and possible kerbside recycling. Discussions quickly led to the industry taking the lead on coffee cup recycling, as at the time, very few coffee cups found their way into the house and therefore into the household kerbside recycling system. So that is why the industry took the lead on how to deal with the mountains of coffee cups literally hitting our streets. 
  • In the past three years there has been a lot of work done by the industry to improve coffee cup recycling. There are more facilities in store now than there were and this has been backed up by the work Hubbub have done and the Starbucks fund which has given funding to quite a few coffee cup recycling projects (LARAC Chair Carole Taylor was on the fund board last year). 
  • That doesn’t mean that the issue is resolved and as can be seen from the comments made in the letter, people want clear information, readily available facilities that are simple to use and joined up thinking across the industry. Certainly comments by A Mad Mother about point of sale and point of recycling and public input can certainly be taken to the next industry meeting. 
  • Recycling facilities were increasing before Covid and you would hope that expansion would continue as we settle into the new normal. In terms of communications OPRL have introduced a coffee cup recycling label to help this, but it would be good, to provide clarity, if all other “recycling” labels were removed, something LARAC would like to see happen on all packaging. 
  • There are definitely better ties across the industry than there were before, although it is also the case that sometimes the heavy lifting falls on one part of the industry and in this case that is the coffee cup retailers and manufactures. Views such as this one from A Mad Mother show that we still have a long way to go to “nail” recycling, but it is undeniably true that we are in a better place now than we were five or ten years ago, so we are heading in the right direction.