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Coffee cups and the circular economy

15th May 2016

Viridor Resource Management  MD, Herman Van Der Meij, writes for CIWM Journal.

On a Friday night everyone wants home. For me it’s March and I’m at the airport, again. Responsible for Viridor’s global materials trading it’s a place a find myself often. This time I’m heading home, making the round trip from England to my wife and daughter in Holland. I’m delayed and with a Starbucks in hand I’m watching the news.

A successful campaign by chef-turned-activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has drawn attention to a big problem: coffee cup waste. The River Cottage and Hugh’s War on Waste campaigner claims that fewer than one in 400 paper cups handed out by high street coffee chains is being recycled, with the remainder destined for recovery or landfill. The tv cuts to a shot of his coffee cup battle bus on the streets of London.

The revelation prompted pledges from Starbucks and Costa to increase the number of cups recycled, with Starbucks announcing it will be offering a 50p discount to UK customers who bring their own cups.

Looking up from cup I pan round and see in front of me the challenge of the Commission’s circular economy package. I watch as busy baristas brew an array of beverages from a range of commodities. The froth hot milk and shake cocoa over expertly filled containers whilst busy consumers neatly deposit their cups in receptacles just under the tv screen. And so it continues.

But it would be madness wouldn’t it if the baristas brewed more and more coffee for customers who might not be there? Yet this is exactly what our sector is being asked to do with proposals to ban recyclable waste from landfill by 2025 and a 70% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030.

Don’t get me wrong, enhanced recycling is as welcome as a warm cappuccino on a cold London day. But it has to be matched by pull-measures missing from the current package. It’s the customer in the line at the coffee store.

Secondary raw materials compete with raw materials from primary sources. Whilst firms are often focused on reducing costs, there needs to be price reflection of the economic cost of collection, processing and reducing reliance on virgin materials.

In its letter to Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, FEAD was right to argue that tough 2030 targets “would vastly increase the supply of secondary raw materials, but where will the demand for these additional materials come from?”

It was right to call for a rethink on elements in the original proposal, including minimum recycled content for selected products, minimum green public procurement levels, eco-labelling to indicate recycled content and recyclability and lower or zero rate VAT on second-hand goods and products with recycled content.

It’s disappointing that Defra moved so quickly to rule out UK action to incentivise companies to use recyclable materials in their packaging, saying it is “ultimately the decision of the business that make the product to decide what packaging materials they use”.

And on eco-design too, the milk is missing from the cup. There’s still no insight into the eco-design directive work plan for 2015-17. Secretary general Nadine De Greef said: “It is important to us that durability, reparability and recyclability requirements are established in the coming work plan, and that relations between the manufacturing and the waste and resource industry are facilitated and intensified.” She’s right.

I’m drawn back to the barista in the airport lounge. With a draft report on the package set to be presented by Rapporteur Simona Bonafè to the Parliament in May I’m hopeful there might be a rethink – one that would reset the supply and demand in my coffee cup analogy. I’m hopeful, but not holding my breath. With my flight being called I deposit my empty coffee cup. Time to make the circular journey home. Back on Monday blighty.

For further information on Viridor’s global commodities trading arm visit here.

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