Governments, coffee shops, fast-food brands, and environmental groups from all over the world have been debating single-use coffee cups for quite some time. It’s only natural that it does.
Every year, the United Kingdom uses over 2.5 billion single-use paper coffee cups, enough to wrap around the globe five and a half times. However, just 0.25 percent, or less than 1 in 400, is recycled.
Every day, approximately 500,000 cups are discarded, and proposals for a national scheme to charge 25p for takeaway cups were shelved in the Houses of Parliament, despite indications that such an initiative would minimise cup use. When the surcharge was implemented in 2018, the number of cups dropped from 58,000 per month to 15,000 per month during a trial period.
So let’s take a fresh look at this issue. What if, instead of prohibiting or restricting the use of these cups, we concentrated on maximising their potential value? These cups are, in essence, recyclable. The vast majority of coffee cups, however, do not end up being recycled due to their complex manufacturing process.
Disposable coffee cups are lined with plastic, usually polythene, that is tightly bonded to the paper, making the cups waterproof and thus able to hold liquid, despite the fact that they are mostly made of paper. The fact that these coffee cups are tainted with drink makes recycling much more difficult.
As a result, these cups cannot be recycled at normal paper recycling plants and must be taken to specialised facilities, of which there are only a handful scattered across Europe. To turn this problem around, we need to think of these cups as containing potentially useful raw material that we can tap into if we have a good collection system in place. Following years of research into paper plastic composites, Nextek has been delving into how solid blends of paper fibre and plastics can be re-used, with the rcup being one of the first items to emerge.
Now, WRAP Cymru has teamed up with Nextek and Ecodek, the UK’s leading composite decking maker, to develop a method for cleaning and shredding used coffee cups in order to create solid polymer composites. This collaborative project, which is part of a series of recycled content trials led by WRAP Cymru and sponsored by the Welsh Government, aims to show that such composites can be converted into a fully waterproof building material that uses up to 200 cups per square metre.
This novel solution aims to move away from our existing dependence on wood in construction materials and instead harvest the “urban forest.” We are surrounded by difficult-to-recycle materials such as plastic laminated papers and cartons that could be combined to create a special composite with limitless applications.