The UK could be getting through 5 billion disposable cups every year, which is double the amount previously estimated.
“When we started [our scheme] in 2014, we conservatively estimated that 2.5 billion cups were being used each year,” said Simply Cups co-founder Peter Goodwin. “Three years in, we now believe the true figure is closer to twice this amount.”
Only a small fraction of the cups – about one in 400 – are being recycled. The rest are incinerated or end up in landfill.
The perception amongst consumers, however, is that the cups are recyclable and therefore recycled.
Whilst the cups are recyclable, it isn’t easy: a layer of plastic fused to the paper makes it difficult to separate the two materials. There also isn’t the infrastructure to collect and process 5 billion cups.
“All cups, paper and plastic, in current use are recyclable,” Goodwin added. “In fact, anything can be recycled if you build a facility that can recycle it. The real barrier is how we ensure these cups reach their intended destination.”
Confusion amongst consumers has led the chef turned campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to front a high profile campaign to raise awareness. Around 7.5 million people watched his BBC One programme on cups and packaging in July.
Businesses from across the supply chain recently signed up to a new paper cup manifesto. The big coffee shop chains, as well as catering firms, cup manufacturers, waste companies and recycling businesses are involved.
The aim is to increase the levels of cup recycling, but no targets have been set. Politicians will be watching progress closely given that paper cups are an obvious target for an environmental tax.
Indeed, Defra recently revealed that the 5p charge on plastic bags has cut consumption in England by 85% and raised £29m for “good causes”.