A New Target in the Fight Against Plastic: Paper Cups
The growing backlash against plastic waste has a new target: paper coffee cups.
Paper cups sourced from sustainable forests have for years been hailed as a more environmentally friendly option than plastic foam, with Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc. and McDonald’s Corp. recently pledging to switch to paper.
But paper cups are attracting new scrutiny, because they contain a tightly bonded plastic lining that needs to be separated before the paper can be recycled. The process requires specialized facilities, meaning most cups, even if put in the recycling bin, end up as trash. The issue is gaining attention as consumer awareness rises about how plastic water bottles, bags, straws and other products used just once before being thrown away are ending up in oceans and hurting the environment.
The makers of paper cups defend their products, saying the focus should be on ensuring they are properly recycled. The cups must be collected separately so they can be trucked to facilities that have the ability to separate the lining from the paper.
“There is the capability to recycle a paper cup in its current form; it’s just getting the product to our paper mills that’s the challenge,” said Stefan Pryor, market sector manager for U.K. paper mill James Cropper PLC.
Still, the pushback against paper cups has grown, especially in Europe. Starbucks this summer started charging a five pence (7 cent) levy for paper cups in the U.K., a world first for the chain. British lawmakers this year suggested a levy on disposable coffee cups or even an outright ban in the next five years if recycling targets can’t be met. A new report published Monday is by European trade body, the Paper Cup Recovery & Recycling Group, says just one in 25 paper cups is recycled in the U.K.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament approved a ban on single-use plastics such as straws, cutlery and cotton swabs. It said European Union countries would have to reduce the use of plastic cups by setting reduction targets or levying charges.
Awareness has risen in the U.S. too, with a wave of bans targeting plastic straws, and China’s recent ban on imported waste is drawing further attention to the issue. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. starting Monday is rolling out a ban on paper cups at its U.S. offices, after previously scrapping such cups in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In a memo to staff this month, the firm asked its Americas employees to bring their own mugs to work saying the region consumes more than eight million nonrecyclable cups each year.
An Australian Senate report in June recommended that single-use plastics be scrapped by 2023. Taiwan has said it would ban cups among other single-use plastic items by 2030.
The scrutiny comes as coffee grows in popularity. The number of coffee shops in the U.S. jumped 16 % between 2012 and 2017, according to research firm Mintel. In the U.K., they rose 28 %, resulting in billions of takeaway cups. Concern about the impact of plastic waste on ocean life was sparked in the U.K. by the BBC’s “Blue Planet II” documentary last year, which spurred a wave of media coverage. Footage, including of a dead albatross chick whose stomach had been pierced by a plastic toothpick, horrified viewers and propelled lawmakers and companies to commit to reducing singleuse plastic.
“Blue Planet created big concerns about plastic packaging,” said Katherine Rolfe, sustainability strategy manager for London’s Heathrow Airport, which is striving for all 13.5 million disposable coffee cups used on-site each year to be recycled. “That’s when we started to look very specifically at which bits of packaging being produced at the airport were big ones we should focus on.”
Starbucks is internally testing a paper cup containing a bioliner rather than a plastic one. The company has invested in U.K. startup Frugalpac whose cup – with an easy-to-separate waterproof film – can be processed by regular recycling
A Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York.