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Bywaters tackling the 2.5bn disposable coffee cup issue

Approximately 2.5 billion coffee cups are used and thrown away each year in the UK, and Bywaters – a leading London based waste management company – aims to recycle as many as possible through their coffee cup recycling scheme. That’s a ‘latte’ coffee cups!

Coffee cups are a hidden villain in the recycling world due to their notorious makeup. Although predominantly made from paper, most coffee cups contain a polyethylene lining to build resistance against heat, allowing the cup to hold hot liquid and users to handle without any discomfort. Unfortunately, coffee cups containing the fused materials cannot be recycled at standard recycling plants.

Many people are unaware of the materials that make coffee cups and regularly dispose of them in the wrong waste stream. This causes recycling contamination, with most coffee cups ending up in landfill or incineration. As recently as 2018, 99.75% of coffee cups in the UK were not being recycled, producing potentially harmful side effects and increasing disposal costs.

To convert coffee cups into recyclable material the coffee cups need to go through a specific process to remove the plastic lining from the virgin paper. 

Firstly, the coffee cups are collected by Bywaters’ electric vans and bailed at their recycling facility, powered by 4000 solar panels. Once bailed the cups are transported to one of Bywaters partner mills which separates the paper from the plastic using a pulper. The materials are then sent to their own recycling stream where they are recycled into high quality products. 

Tackling the issue head on, in 2019 Bywaters partnered with ‘The Cup Fund’, a grant funded by charity Hubbub and Starbucks, to implement a coffee cup recycling scheme at three of London’s prestigious universities.

To change perceptions and re-establish the waste segregation process, Bywaters implemented a variety of innovative recycling equipment, including:

  • State-of-the-art reverse vending machines
  • Bespoke coffee cup shaped recycling bins for each site
  • Custom-printed recyclable coffee cups
  • Discounts on hot drinks for those recycling their cups
  • Prize competitions featuring sustainable alternatives to coffee cups and gift vouchers

The reverse vending machines provide users with discounts on hot drinks when they recycle cups, also entering them into prize draws. By providing cash incentives, students are far more likely to recycle their cups. Helping to reduce the 152,000 tonnes of CO2 produced by coffee cup disposal in the UK annually. Similar to what 33,300 cars produce in a year. 

‘As part of our ‘Plastic Free LSE’ campaign, we promote reusable coffee cups on campus. The introduction of the Cup Fund initiative on the LSE campus provides students and staff with a way to recycle single-use cups as a complement to this. Working together with Bywaters and the Cup Fund enabled us to install eye-catching cup bins and a reverse vending machine in our Student Union, as well as engaging visuals and communications.’

Elena Rivilla Lutterkort, Sustainability Projects Officer, LSE

The Cup Fund infrastructure established by Bywaters has successfully educated university attendees on coffee cup recycling and consequently increased recycling rates in the education sector. 

The solution maximises the value of the coffee cups, creating a circular economy that allows paper cups to be reprocessed multiple times into high quality paper, notebooks and cards. The polyethylene extracted has been used to make plastic products such as reusable bottles and containers. 

This has reduced recycling contamination and prevented coffee cups from generating additional CO2 emissions during incineration. If this model was replicated in other institutions, it could further reduce global carbon emissions and play a part in the worldwide effort to halt climate change.

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