Close Search


Coffee Cups and Red Herrings?

28th July 2016

Recyclable coffee cups and reduced packaging are a good start but more must be done to bridge the gap between producers and recyclers.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘War on Waste’ broadcast last night on BBC1 once again raises the important issue of our collective responsibility to steward resources, and the UK’s drive towards higher recycling.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising that the programme took an overly simplistic view of important resource management issues and the role of consumers and corporations in tackling these.

The suggestion that anything not recycled goes straight to landfill misses the progress made in the UK towards landfill diversion and the significant energy recovery capacity now deployed.

A good proportion of non-recyclable coffee cups (and low grade packaging used by e-commerce companies) is actually used to generate vital renewable energy. Low-grade paper and card is a renewable resource. Energy recovery therefore, can represent the optimum solution for post-consumer material of this type – or a transition solution at least. The priority, of course, remains to move further up the waste hierarchy and to drive efficiency where we can.

A real and important issue raised by the programme, albeit subtly, was the widespread use of composite materials in consumer packaging. Composite materials (coffee cups are a fine example), loved by designers and often created as a response to food protection requirements, present major recyclability challenges – economically and physically.

Little to modest progress has been made in creating productive links between the consumer-focused packaging industry and the post-consumer recycling sector. More must be done. Innovative design that seeks to reduce waste can support businesses and consumers to do the right thing. Genuinely biodegradable food packaging for example, made from plants not plastic, means no separation or cleaning of food packaging is necessary.

At River Cottage’s Spring Food Fair, Viridor together with biodegradable packaging firm, Vegware, enabled a recycling rate of 72% by serving all food on compostable packaging. This compares to an average event recycling rate of 15%.

All quality recycling contributes strongly to reducing carbon emissions. We must prioritise all efforts to recycle more, to recover energy from non-recyclable waste, and to reduce waste sent to landfill.

For further information please contact: