The UK is Set for a Paper Cup Recycling Revolution

Paper Cup Recycling

In almost every country, numerous street scenes seem to be revolving around endless servings of coffee. The massive consumption of coffee automatically boosted the co-related need for paper cups worldwide. Extremely user-friendly and convenient, paper cups are found almost everywhere; apart from coffee shops, they are present in hospitals, offices and are much appreciated for outdoor parties. This trend has nonetheless posed a dilemma in terms of recycling. A four-year research in the United Kingdom has given birth to a unique technology that could put an end to this persisting debate. 

A resin specially designed for recyclability of paper cups

To be able to contain liquids like hot coffee or even cold beverages, disposable paper cups are often coated or lined with plastic or wax. This coating acts as a barrier and prevents the liquid from soaking through the paper. However, this makes it rather difficult for recycling. Figures show that just one in four hundred cups is currently recycled in the UK annually, while more than 50 percent of consumers believe that their disposable paper cups are being recycled.

Discarding paper cups is not the solution, though. It would be unrealistic to expect consumers to show up at coffee shops with their thermos or mugs. The goal, subsequently, was to devise a way to make recycling of paper cups easier.

To achieve this goal and to reduce the impact of paper cups on the environment in the same breath, Professors Dr. Edward Kosior, from Brunel University London’s Wolfson Centre, and Dr. John Mitchell of London’s Imperial College, conducted four years of research work to find out how paper cups could be made more environmental-friendly. Their extensive work was fruitful. The professors invented a unique resin that combines plastic and high-quality paper used for cups to make a strong material.

For years, many people have been debating on how to separate the paper from the plastic that are tightly combined, for recycling purposes. The two professors went in the opposite direction. Instead of looking for means and ways to separate these components, they decided to create such a technology that would make paper cups totally recyclable as they are. So, instead of decreasing the quantity of plastic present, they decided to increase it in such a manner to make a special resin.

This new option presents a 50-50 combination of paper and plastic ratio. In this manner, adhesion is much stronger between the two materials and at high speeds, the paper cups become easily mouldable into products.

Dr. Chris Cheesman, professor at the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College, acclaims this invention. In his opinion, the strong cellulose fibre of the high-quality paper used for paper cups would make a tough material once recycled and may be used to replace wood in certain products.

Paper cups to be recycled into various products

Paper cups with this resin may be used for a wide array of products. To adhere to sustainability concepts, they may be recycled into coffee lids, straws, and trays for cafeteria, for instance. To replace wood, they may equally be recycled into table tops.

Paper cups may help in decreasing impacts of deforestation

By replacing wood in many products, these paper cups containing the resin would undeniably reduce the need for extrapolation of new material from forests, and subsequently, the detrimental effects of deforestation.

Paper cups in the sustainable management of resources

Professors Dr. Edward Kosior and Dr. John Mitchell share a broader vision: apart from facilitating recycling of millions of paper cups being used in the UK, they wish to make their invention a key factor to revamp the economy of the country by reviewing techniques of disposal of waste and resource management.

The scenario is clear-cut: a coffee cup, for example, has a very short life span. It can become a waste product in less than half an hour. The professors are of opinion that by enabling proper recycling of paper cups, these products can go from waste to other products, and thus, having a longer lifespan.

This would systematically imply that the use of virgin plastics will be considerably reduced. Currently, approximately 5 billion paper cups are used per year in the UK only. Instead of heaping into waste mountains, the innovative resin would allow them to be transformed into other useful products while cutting down use of new plastic material.

UK holds its biggest coffee cups recycling campaign

Apart from the technical issues of recycling of paper cups, several organisations have been working hard to change consumers’ behaviour with regards to the recycling of coffee cups. Every day, some 7 million paper cups designed for hot beverages are thrown away. The parallel issue that goes hand in hand is littering. Several millions of pounds are spent by city councils to deal with it.

Several organisations, such as the environmental charity Hubbub, try to bring change. Recently, 7 giant coffee-cup bins were placed on the streets in London to collect paper cups for recycling. Baptized as the #SquareMileChallenge bin, this campaign aimed at getting retailers, businesses, organisations as well as citizens involved. Professors Dr. Edward Kosior and Dr. John Mitchell and their team working on the paper cup project were also involved.

In last April, the goal of collecting and recycling half a million of coffee cups was reached under this campaign. The next target is to collect and recycle 5 million coffee cups by the end of 2017.

The collected coffee cups are being recycled in two ways. The first method consists in using the unique resin invented by the two professors. The cups are fully shredded and processed into a resin that is then mixed with recycled plastic. This mouldable material can be transformed into a wide range of products including picnic benches. The second method consists in separating the plastic coating or lining from the paper in the cups. Fibres recovered are transformed into products such as cardboard containers.

Source: Scyphus, UK