We’re putting millions of single-use cups and bottles into landfill every day - and it’s killing the planet. Find out how we can change things for the better.
The problem with single-use plastic
Over the past 60-70 years, our use of modern plastics has grown exponentially. It’s a tough, malleable material that is incredibly easy to use for packaging and containing our food and drink. Its strength is also its weakness, however. Almost all the plastic ever made still exists in some form. The vast majority, an estimated 70%, of plastic objects - from tiny ‘micro beads’ to large household and industrial objects - still exist. But now it’s useless waste, mainly in landfill, or damaging trash and pollution in the natural environment.
You may well have been shocked and upset by David Attenborough’s bleak warnings about plastic pollution in our oceans in the concluding episode of Blue Planet II in late 2017. This message was backed by the United Nations who described plastic pollution as a “planetary crisis”, with marine life now threatened by “irreparable damage”.
Growing awareness of the plastic problem
In January 2018 Theresa May announced a plan to cut avoidable plastic waste. She highlighted the fact that Britain disposes enough single-use plastic waste in a year to fill the Albert Hall 1,000 times.
Unfortunately, the plan she shared covers a period of 25-years and is vague on what ‘avoidable’ plastic waste actually is. There was little detail about immediate action.
Meanwhile, public attention is starting to focus on the urgent need to change our behaviour in relation to waste and plastic in particular. For example, at the time of writing (March 2018) there are 107 live parliamentary petitions relating to plastic waste. Meanwhile, shoppers are taking things into their own hands and leaving the plastic packaging from their shop in supermarkets, as a way of protesting its needless use in ‘plastic attacks’.
In particular, there’s growing awareness of three things:
The need to use less plastic in the first place.
The need for good quality reusable products over ‘disposable’ single-use products that immediately become landfill waste.
The need to recycle what we throw away - which means making sure things are made from easily recyclable materials.
Why target single-use cups and bottles in particular?
We use more than 35.8 million bottles every day in the UK and 16 million of these (less than half) don’t get to plastic recycling facilities. (Compare that with somewhere like Norway where 97% of bottles are recycled.)
Meanwhile, we throw away between 2.5bn and 3bn paper cups each year in the UK. These cups are mainly used for coffee and other hot drinks from shops and cafes on our high street. The cups we throw away after using them once generates around 25,000 tonnes of waste.
That means that every single day in the UK we’re having a hot drink and then chucking 7m coffee cups in the bin.
If you think the figures for recycling of single-use bottles is bad - it’s a huge success in comparison with the less than 1% of coffee cups that are currently being recycled. Yes, you read correctly: only one in 400 coffee cups are thought to be recycled.
Why aren’t we recycling single-use cups?
The biggest obstacle for recycling ‘paper’ cups is that actually they are made from a mixture of paper and plastic. To be specific, coffee cups are usually lined with a treated form of plastic - polyacetylene - which makes it water-tight but also makes it very hard to recycle. If you’ve seen a recycling arrow on your coffee cup, it’s probably on the cardboard sleeve rather than the cup itself.
Sadly, most coffee cups aren’t even made from recycled paper or card. They’re almost always made straight from the tree.
So what normally happens to a coffee cup? Because it’s a mix of paper and plastic, it can’t be treated as pure paper. The plastic coating needs to be separated from the paper fibre of the cup. That’s a hard process.
So cups, like food and drink pouches, crisp packets and pizza boxes, aren’t treated as recyclable. They most likely end up in landfill or on a container ship heading to another country or them to deal with. “There’s a real challenge to separate compound materials,” says Jonny Hazell of Green Alliance. This problem is not unique to coffee cups. Capri-Sun, laminated crisp packets, and pizza boxes all present similar challenges (the grease stains are deemed a contaminant).
The good news - things are about to change
The good news is that there are some clear examples of everyday products that could be redesigned to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem - without hurting businesses or consumers. And the reusable coffee cup is definitely one of them.
The rCUP reusable cup is made from waste cups - using the previously ‘useless’ mix of paper and plastic to create a brand new kind of polymer. It’s been designed to last as long as possible and is 100% recyclable. That means when it does finally come to the end of its life, you can put it in the box outside your house and it will be easily processed by existing recycling systems. So it’s one of a new generation of products that sees today’s waste as tomorrow’s product. Part of the new circular economy.
There are also plans afoot to tackle those 16 million or so plastic bottles that are still going to landfill every day in the UK - with inspiration being taken from the successes in Scandinavia of a deposit scheme that encourages consumers to return their bottles to retailers who then take on responsibility for recycling.
Meanwhile, recent research has shown that incentives such as a tax on disposable coffee cups, and use of reusable replacements could help cut the number of cups thrown away in the UK every year by between 50m and 300m. It’s a good start. At least we can start making good use of the cups that are still thrown away in making more reuseable rCUPs!