By Oliver Rosevear, Energy and Environment Manager, Costa.

When Hugh’s War on Waste revealed on primetime TV that only 0.25% of the 2.5 billion coffee cups used annually in Britain were recycled it was a watershed moment.

Being the biggest coffee chain in the UK we acknowledge our responsibility and know that we have a big part to play. We were keen to stay ahead of the agenda and wanted to take the lead, making the right decisions for the right reasons.

Who said paper cups are not recyclable?

The interesting thing to me about that programme was that it said the plastic lining in the vast majority of these cups meant that they couldn’t be recycled. This didn’t sound right to me as the cups are made from 95% sustainably sourced paper. Because the trees that provide the paper suck up the carbon, the cups are a sustainable product, so long as they are actually recycled.

We started by talking to the recyclers like DS Smith. They started doing trials and worked out that so long as cups didn’t exceed 5% of the total load of paper waste then, even with the plastic lining, the cups could be recycled as the fibres on the outside would rub off giving sufficient yield.

Where do all the cups end up?

So, the cups can be recycled but there hasn’t been the clarity on how and where. We wanted to work out how we could change the system and make it so that the norm would be that the cups would be recycled. The cups themselves are just a part of the system. Once we’d established that the cups could be recycled and the paper mills could and would actually recycle them, we then had to turn our attention to the next issue. Up until now there hasn’t been the infrastructure required for recycling on the go and, pretty quickly, it became apparent that we needed to drive it. We could control cups in store, but what about once people leave our premises?

We commissioned Sheffield University to find out where the cups end up. They discovered that a lot of them end up in office and domestic bins, as well as major consumer hubs like railway stations and shopping centres, but they weren’t being collected. We got together with The Alliance of Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK) to ensure that bring back banks and kerbside recycling was geared up to collect the cups. This gave us 27% overage of local authorities and the potential for 92% coverage in line with beverage carton recycling.

Incentivising collection

There was one more vital piece of the jigsaw; to ensure collaboration across the whole supply chain so we could really go into battle in the war against ‘on the go’ waste. Historically it’s not been clear as to the financial viability for waste collectors to collect and transport the cups. Currently they get £50 a tonne for the material but it was debatable if this was enough to make it commercially attractive to collect cups. We asked them how much we would need to put in to make it viable.? We’ve now agreed to pay them an extra £70 a tonne which means they will receive £120 a tonne – almost three times what they receive for plastic and it means there is the incentive there for the waste collectors. We’ve managed to put the supportive mechanism in place and I believe this could be a template for recycling other packaging.

There’s been a lot of talk about reducing the number of disposable cups and at Costa we’ve been offering a 25p discount to customers who bring their own reusable cup. The Government and others have talked about charging people for disposable cups like with plastic bags. But, I don’t believe a latte levy would be fair as it just penalises coffee drinkers to support the recycling of other ‘on the go’ packaging. This way, we are investing in the system to make it work better for everyone.

Opportunity to collaborate

We absolutely want to encourage people to bring their own cups and find new ways for people to re-use and are continually looking at how we can get rid of the blockers to that. We ask out team to make it as easy as possible for our customers to reuse and we have introduced a new range of reusable cups which also create additional donations to our Costa Foundation charity.

We’re aiming for 100m cups to be recycled in the first year and there’s an opportunity for other operators to get involved – working with Valpac who are running the system for us. By 2020 we are confident we can be recycling as many cups as we sell in a year – 500m. Achieving that will be as a result of collaboration with everyone in the supply chain, including the five waste collectors and the three recycling companies we’re working with.