Wake up and smell the coffee - our shared responsibility to manage food and drink packaging waste

June 28, 2017 Amanda Skeldon

Wake up and smell the coffee: our shared responsibility to manage food and drink packaging waste

As edie's Resource Management month draws to a close, circular economy experts Libby Sandbrook (BITC) and Debbie Hitchen (Anthesis) explore the challenges and opportunities behind two of the most talked-about packaging waste issues of our generation: coffee cups and plastic bottles.

The Environmental Audit Committee has launched an inquiry into the impacts of coffee cups and plastics bottles

The Environmental Audit Committee has launched an inquiry into the impacts of coffee cups and plastics bottles

There’s no escaping the media frenzy around paper coffee cups and plastic bottles recently, and the impact they have on the environment. It’s not surprising when you consider that only a fraction of the 2.5 billion coffee cups consumed in the UK each year currently get recycled. Add to that the 15 million plastic bottles used each day and the volume of food and drink packaging waste created in the UK is clearly an issue.

The Government has recently signaled its concern with the announcement of the launch of an Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the impacts of both plastics bottles and paper coffee cups. This is good news, because it will continue to ensure that these issues are front of mind. But this committee must be sure to avoid the temptation to seize ‘simple solutions’ and to lose sight of the bigger picture around the challenges of litter and post-consumer waste in the UK. So, we need to harness this government attention for good, whilst acknowledging the complexities of this challenge to ensure that the conclusions reached are sensible, sustainable and effective across the supply chain.  It’s important to understand the causes of littering and reflect on the role we all have to play in addressing these challenges.

Paper coffee cups are in the spotlight because they are a visible example of a more widespread issue concerning packaging, waste and litter in the UK. Proportionally, coffee cups account for a tiny percentage of total UK litter; just 0.7%. Drink cans and bottles, confectionary packaging, fast-food packaging and smoking-related litter are all part of the wider problem.

What is more, we need to look beyond the challenge of ‘litter’. A key point is that what is currently considered ‘waste’ is in fact a valuable resource that can be recovered and recycled. We need to change people’s frame of reference to understand this value in waste so that they are willing to be active in ensuring that these used products are properly disposed of.  However, proper disposal itself presents more problems as many of these products are used ‘on the go’ and end up as waste on the street, at transport hubs such as stations or in the office. 

There is no single product at which to point the blame. The increased use of paper coffee cups is merely a reflection of the rising demand for food and drinks on the go and the packaging and containers that facilitate this lifestyle. Composite food packaging, plastic bottles, cutlery are all part of this lifestyle choice and the ultimate destination of all types of packaging needs to be considered as part of the current review, not just singling out the most visible elements.

Collaborative approach

There are several key ingredients for success in tackling the challenge of consumer waste:

The first, particularly in relation to coffee cups, is that there must be scaleable solutions that will enable real inroads to be made in increasing recovery and recycling. Industry needs to incubate and quickly bring to market creative solutions that work to scale and through the supply chain. There is a role for solutions like reusable and compostable packaging - but they are only part of the solution.   

Secondly it is important to acknowledge the complexities of different settings - on the move, at the office and at leisure. Circular thinking is driving some excellent examples in terms of coffee cup recovery initiatives such as the work Hubbub has done in Manchester which has led to the larger scale ‘Square Mile Challenge’ which launches in the City of London in April. This challenge will succeed in meeting its target of recycling five million paper cups by the end of the year because it is working in a high density population area in a small geographic region. Stakeholders are hopeful this will create a model that can be quickly rolled out across other city centres. It will also work because the value of the paper cups is captured by collector Simply Cups and turned back into useable products.

Hubbub has engaged more than 40 stakeholders in the Square Mile Challenge including large City firms, contract caterers and retail operator brands. This is a great example of just what can be achieved when the supply chain works together. Effective collaboration like this is also critical to success; developing joined up solutions to everything from the design specification of cups, to the collection and processing of waste materials. This is where the work of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG) has been focused since it launched its Paper Cups Manifesto last summer.  The PCRRG has acted as a catalyst for new partnerships and innovation, for example Bunzl Catering Services has partnered with Simply Cups to offer its customers a simple solution to recover and recycle paper cups. Learning from initiatives such as these and developing further opportunities for business collaboration are central to the ongoing work of the PCRRG.

It is also important to recognize that the responsibility is not confined to the retail coffee industry.  Everyone has an important role to play – as consumers, employers and employees. We need to engage with consumers to promote behavioural change and encourage employers and employees to work together to find new ways of working.

Unusual suspects

The Circular Economy Taskforce, convened by Business in the Community is an active working group of businesses across sectors collaborating on the creation of practical solutions to the challenges of resource use and waste – from coffee cups, to IT equipment, furniture and food waste. This can include some unlikely suspects: for example, UK service companies, as a sector, generate as much waste as there is municipal waste in any given year, so steps taken to make more of the materials they consume could make a huge difference and deliver a step change towards a circular economy.

The work of PwC provides a great illustration of this potential. On the theme of coffee cups, it has switched those used at catering facilities inside its offices to a compostable variety - so they can be recycled and used back on the land. And, it’s now also piloting a system for composite cups from which are brought onto its premises by employees from high street eateries, asking the cleaners to help segregate them from the general waste and then sending them on to Simply Cups for recycling. These are just two examples of how PwC is moving towards a ‘circular office’ through a comprehensive and broad ranging programme to reduce, reuse and capture value from office waste.

Government too has a role in ensuring that the right incentives and infrastructure are in place nationally to enable collection, sorting and recovery. And there are lessons here to be learnt from other countries.

Ultimately, tackling the issues of coffee cup, plastic bottle and wider packaging waste requires so much more than high profile recycling programmes. It also requires industry action, consumer education and behavioral change - at home, at work, at play and on the move.  By thinking beyond recycling and collaborating to identify scalable solutions which can be applied in a range of settings it is possible to develop sustainable, circular solutions to the issue of paper cups, plastic bottles and all on-the-go food packaging.

Libby Sandbrook is BITC’s senior advisor on the environment, responsible for the group’s work with businesses on resource management and the circular economy

Debbie Hitchen is a director at Anthesis and the lead for the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG) co-ordination. Anthesis is a member of BITC’s Circular Economy Taskforce

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