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J&B Recycling Knowledge

Can you recycle disposable coffee cups

Can you recycle disposable cups in your kerbside recycling bin?

J&B Recycling regularly communicate messages on social media about what can and cannot be recycled in kerbside collection schemes. We recently posted a video advising that disposable cups cannot be recycled in your kerbside recycling and, whilst generally well received, it did spark one comment challenging our advice:

“What you're actually saying J&B Recycling Ltd, is that the facility you operate is built for your recycling agenda, not the requirements of the residents of said kerbside collections? Plenty other kerbside collections can recycle these easily, LCA and private collectors. These materials can be recycled, and advocating them entering general waste is simply ludicrous.”

We did give a lot of thought about the subject before we posted the video, but this comment has made us sit down and really think about what we are saying to make sure we have our facts right.

If we break this comment down, there are a few things to address.

“Plenty of other kerbside collections can recycle these easily.”

Disposable cups are made of a combination of materials, such as paper and plastic, which makes them difficult to recycle through traditional methods. The plastic lining on the inside of the cup can't be separated from the paper, so the cup cannot be processed in the same way as other paper products. Additionally, disposable cups often contain food or drink residue which can contaminate other recyclable materials. We know these cups can only be recycled at specialist paper mills that deal with multi-layer/composite packaging material such as beverage cartons and coffee cups. If they end up at paper mills that recycle paper or cardboard then these composites are actually classed as contamination. We have always been led by the Local Authorities themselves, i.e., our customers, the majority of whom do not include them in the specification for the acceptable material they collect at kerbside. This is because many fibre recycling facilities do not accept disposable cups in their pulping process to make recycled fibre.

Recycle Now is the national recycling campaign for England and Northern Ireland, which aims to motivate more people, to recycle more of the right things, more often. It is delivered by WRAP, a charity working across six continents with governments, businesses and citizens to create a world where resources are sourced and used sustainably, through product design, waste minimisation, re-use, recycling and reprocessing of waste materials.

This is what Recycle Now says about disposable coffee cups:

  • Coffee cups are not normally accepted in household recycling collection schemes but can be returned for recycling at some high street coffee shops. Better still, take advantage of the discounts offered by many shops by taking along your own reusable cup.
  • They can also be recycled in food and drink cartons banks at Recycling Centres - find your nearest recycling point below.

Recycle Now have a handy tool on their website where you can check items against your post code to see if they can be put in your kerbside recycling. We have run the following searches on large cities and towns, and to date none of these local authorities accept disposable coffee cups: Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, North London, East London, West London, South London, Dover.

The same tool will also tell you where your nearest point to your postcode is where you can take your coffee cups to for recycling - whether this a Household Waste Recycling Centre (HWRC), or a store or coffee shop running schemes dedicated to coffee cup recycling.

Check the website to see if disposable coffee cups can be recycled in your area and please do let us know if there is a local authority that can accept disposable coffee cups in their kerbside scheme.

On to the next point…

“These materials can be recycled, and advocating them entering general waste is simply ludicrous.”

We don’t dispute that these materials can be recycled, and we are certainly not suggesting that big brands like Starbucks and Costa aren’t giving thought to the recyclability of materials used when they manufacture them. The problem is that a lot of these materials can’t be recycled through traditional methods (we’ll come back to your last point in a minute).

The fact is, it is not widely understood by consumers that coffee cups have to be recycled via a different waste stream. The Environment Audit Committee estimates that just one in 400 coffee cups are disposed of correctly.

“2.5 billion coffee cups are used and thrown away each year in the UK - enough to stretch around the world roughly five and a half times - but less than 1 in 400 - just 0.25% - are recycled.” The Environment Audit Committee

Consumers, quite fairly, assume that when they’re made of paper, or carry a symbol saying that they are recyclable, the cups can enter mainstream waste channels.

At the end of the day, lots of these coffee cups end up in our MRF (and in other MRFs across the UK). We can advocate taking them back to the source, as we do in our video, or to a household waste recycling centre; but ultimately the chances are they will still end up in people’s household recycling waste.

The main reason we cannot recover paper cups when mixed with other wastes is that the equipment used to sort the waste cannot distinguish between a composite cup, a non- composite paper cup and other fibres, so the composite cups could end up being in the wrong output, going to the wrong mill and being a contaminant.

So, if we are unable to process them, is it that ‘ludicrous’ to suggest they enter general waste if the other solutions just don’t work? In most, if not all cases this will be used to generate energy.

Obviously, we would prefer that disposable coffee cups are disposed of properly. But if an individual is making a straight choice of between putting a cup in their kerbside recycling bin or general waste bin, then it should go in their general waste bin.

We fully advocate that re-usable coffee cups should instead of disposable cups. Failing that then disposable cups are returned to take back schemes, or are made of materials that can be more easily recovered from kerbside waste! But for now, we don’t think that our message is that ‘ludicrous’ – especially as we did also advise that they can be taken back to the source they purchase them from.

“What you're actually saying J&B Recycling Ltd, is that the facility you operate is built for your recycling agenda, not the requirements of the residents of said kerbside collections.”

Now this is an interesting comment, and one that we obviously strongly dispute!

First a bit of background for anyone who doesn’t know about us. J&B Recycling has been delivering recycling services in the North East of England since 1998. We operate from 20 acres of highly developed facilities across the region with a team of 200 staff and a fleet of 17 vehicles collecting and processing over 200,000 tonnes of waste materials per annum.

The Windermere MRF in Hartlepool is the largest of J&B’s MRFs, contributing to around 80% of processing operations across the business. It processes over 120,000 tonnes of comingled recyclable waste collected through Local Authority contracts per annum, plus single stream recyclables and commercial streams. Using a largely automated process, the MRF produces the highest quality end-products with an industry leading recovery rate. Our hard work earned us the title of Facility of the Year in 2022 at the National Recycling Awards!

Since 2020 we have invested more than £3.5million, to improve processing capacity, with further investment is planned for 2022/23. Check out our video to see how complex the process of sorting the thousands of tonnes of materials already is – without the added complexity of sorting disposable coffee cups!

Kerbside collection schemes are not meant to operate as a catch all for recyclable waste or act as safety blanket for wishcycling. If you followed the above argument then why not allow bricks, wood, batteries and textiles in the kerbside too, as those are all recyclable. That’s why HRWC’s, charity shops and take back schemes exist. Not everything that is recyclable can be recycled via the kerbside, even if the residents would like them to be.

Our MRF wasn’t bult for our “recycling agenda” it was built to serve the needs of the Local Authorities we serve, and the requirements of the outlets that we send the recovered outputs to for reprocessing.

Now to why we haven’t bottomed out the sorting of disposable coffee cups yet

Well, coffee cups aren’t the only issue we are working on. They are a big issue that needs to be addressed, but with changing advice, guidelines and manufacturing methods, we don’t want to jump the gun and invest millions of pounds in the equipment and structural changes when legislation and guidance on consistency of collections, DRS and other has yet to be published. This is no fault of our own we need clarity on future policy from the Government, whatever that may be, to make sound business decisions that may have the added benefit to recover disposable coffee cups. However, there has to be commercial value to do this, otherwise ultimately it will add to the financial burden on taxpayers if its isn’t covered by EPR (someone has to pick up the bill after all)! Also, we could invest millions of pounds in a solution that proves obsolete if new national guidance is produced in the next few years.

So yes, in some ways it comes down to money. But at the end of the day, we aren’t the ones creating the problem in the first place! Surely there has to be some thought given by manufacturers to the lifecycle of their products and how they will be recovered/disposed of?

J&B Recycling provide waste management solutions for local authorities and businesses across the North of England. Our main Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) is based in Hartlepool and we have a second site in Middlesbrough, making us ideally placed for collections across Teesside (Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Darlington). We also have a site in Washington and we operate established collection routes throughout Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Sunderland, North Tyneside and Northumberland. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if we can help with your waste collection.

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