Disposable cup recycling group misses 8% target

Just 6% of paper cups are being recycled, according to new data released to Footprint by the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG).

The figures are based on cups recycled through the national cup recycling scheme, which was set up by Costa and Valpak and is supported by seven other major retailers. Waste collectors are paid a premium of £70 per tonne for collecting the cups and recycling them.

Since its launch in 2018, the scheme has collected “over 150m cups”. Daily collections of cups have also jumped 50% between the first and second years.

The Foodservice Packaging Association said there has been “huge momentum” over the past 12 months. Indeed, the 2020 report by the PCRRG, published today, showcases a number of initiatives taking place, from schemes to recycle cups in office blocks and airports to new campaigns to encourage recycling. “The industry has continued its hard work in forging new partnerships, developing new schemes and investing in new facilities to ensure that there is capacity to recycle every paper cup used in the UK,” said the group’s chairman Neil Whittall.

However, four years on from its first manifesto and recycling rates remain stubbornly low. Given that disposables have become popular during the coronavirus pandemic, there will be pressure on brands to improve their performance.

The 6% figure was actually not included in the new report, nor was there any reference to the claim, made in the 2018 report, that 1 in 12 cups (8%) would be recycled in 2019.

An 8% recycling rate “wouldn’t be much to boast about”, said Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, a think tank. But “progress on recycling paper cups seems to have stalled”, she added.

The number of recycling points has also only just inched up in the past 12 months – from just under 4,600 to 4,800. PCRRG said the figure is likely to be “closer to 5,000” as numbers were “increasing before lockdown”. Recycling points in workplaces are also not included.

However, a quick analysis of the progress made by members of the PCRRG suggests that some brands are dragging their feet.

Of the 4,800 points, almost 4,300 are in Costa, McDonald’s and Pret outlets. The other 500 are spread across Burger King, Dunkin, Greggs and Starbucks – which have more than 3,500 stores between them.

Starbucks did not respond to requests for an update on progress to meet a target it set in 2018 to increase recycling points from 300 to 850. The chain is working with Hubbub on a series of initiatives that will result in an estimated 35m cups being recycled.

Costa has cup collections in every one of its 2,700 stores, whilst McDonald’s has them in 90% of its outlets. Pret had 400.

Ten companies have also left the PCRRG since 2018, including KFC, Biobean, First Mile, Frugalpac, Heathrow, Moto and Waitrose. The supermarket has stopped using paper cups. Four companies, meanwhile, have joined the scheme. There are still no members from the contract catering sector.

The number of councils offering cup collections has remained the same, at 115. PCRRG said this is now higher, with 127 local authorities collecting cups through bring banks. A spokesperson for the PCRRG said a number of local authorities are waiting on the government’s consistent waste collection policy to be implemented before making any decisions on new material waste streams.

“The single biggest action that would make a difference in paper cup recycling would be the introduction of consistent waste collections […] with cups collected as part of the beverage carton collection,” PCRRG said in a detailed response to Footprint.

In his foreword to the new report Lord Deben, chairman of the UK Committee on Climate Change, wrote: “We hear frequently that paper cups can’t be recycled. This report from the PCRRG demonstrates unequivocally that paper cups are being recycled in the UK in significant numbers."

However, Peake said the performance is “not good enough, especially at a time when progress towards reusables – the far [more] preferable option – has positively reversed. Industry and government need to do much more to ensure reuse is always the first option and that whatever’s left over is recyclable and actually recycled.”

The Covid-19 crisis has triggered heated discussions about the suitability and safety of reuse systems. Most major coffee shop chains stopped accepting reusables in the run-up to the late-March lockdown in the UK. Starbucks, which led the shift, said it was out of an “abundance of caution”.

However, last month Costa started accepting reusable cups. Other outlets have been offering “contactless” refills for customers.

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