Recycling – coffee cups


This week on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show there was a segment on the lack of recycling of ‘paper’ coffee cups. Jeremy opened with the following:

“Fewer than 1 in 400 ‘paper’ cups handed out by high street coffee shops is being recycled… the other 399 cups just end up in landfill, despite the fact that we are told the opposite.”

Part of the problem is that 1) not everyone disposes of their cup ‘correctly’, and 2) if they do, there may not be the facilities in place to deal with it due to a paper cup not being 100% paper. Apparently there are only two facilities in the UK that recycle such things – “But it’s a paper cup?” well you might think so, but read on.

Greenpeace estimates that 5000 such cups are discarded every minute (in the UK).

These paper cups are not only paper but they are made with plastic too, for practical purposes – they are a composite material and are thus a problem for recycling centres. There is also the issue of the ink used and the methods for removing this, which apparently involves using a bleaching agent which is in itself harmful to the environment.

There are alternatives where the plastic part is made as a liner that will float free during the recycling process but as of yet these aren’t being widely used. I’ve bought yogurt that I thought was in a paper tub but later discovered there was a separate plastic cup inside the outer paper sleeve – it kind of made me feel mislead and that the paper sleeve was unnecessary (although that particular pot was flimsy without the sleeve).

It is my view that this topic of recycling these coffee cups reflects an overall issue in our world, or rather issues.

1) We find ourselves living these lifestyles and these lifestyles are catered for and encouraged by business, who are run by people like you and me who buy into (and sell into) this lifestyle also.

2) The “system” (that we have created) is then expected or requested to correct the wrongs we inflict on our environment by living / buying into this lifestyle.

3) Few of us have any awareness of the life-cycle of such a coffee cup, or anything else we buy into.

I recall when I was a child I had a book about a loaf of bread, its journey. This might sound dull, but it followed the making of this loaf of bread right from the growing of the corn, to the baking and delivery of the loaf. Well that’s how vague my memory is of that book, but it clearly made an impact on me since I can still remember flicking through it all these years later. The point is that this book revealed to me the process a loaf went through and in doing so I could consider the process other foods and products might go through. Nowadays to paint this same picture would present a very fake image, particularly because supermarket bread is mass-produced and supplied in a way that isn’t so attractive. I think something similar needs to explained with modern-day recycling processes and the products that are manufactured for us, but alas, the process is unlikely to be so pretty.

I think what this would reveal is how complicated things have become – a paper cup isn’t just a paper cup and it isn’t simply turned into another paper cup after it has been discarded. The many complexities are what tell me is wrong and these manufactured complexities underlie our whole society. Solving the issue of the un-recycled paper cup, on its own, will solve only that, or at best, be gradually transferable to other similar packaging methods (in such a slow process whose pace will be slower than that of the damage being caused) – it doesn’t tackle the underlying issue.

Some people who contacted the radio show said they believed recycling of such things was pointless; “paper grows on trees” and it biodegrades, or, it’s more expensive to recycle than to farm new paper or bury used paper in landfill – metals, for example, are worth recycling because they are expensive to produce from the raw materials.

coffeefoilA solution some suggested was to “take a flask”… or your own mug to the coffee shop. The underlying point here is to “change your lifestyle”, but first you have to be conscious of it. We make the mistake ourselves by accepting things as they are without consideration – being handed such a cup and then discarding it without consideration, or assuming it’s simply paper, and will be dealt with in an ethical and honest way, or perhaps many just see it as someone else’s problem when they’ve finished with it. One could even give up their dependence on caffeine, but this would probably bring me onto the topic of buying bottled water! Personally, I prefer to drink coffee from a proper cup – call me a coffee snob, but even when I make “fresh coffee” at home the beans are supplied in a paper bag that is in fact a composite – being foil/plastic-lined. The point of taking your own container to a coffee shop reminds me of a point I have raised about the blood donation process where donors are handed plastic cups with drinks in – the plastic is recyclable yet is discarded in general waste (at my donation centre at least) – I have still not heard back from the NHS regarding this.

I think we all need to be mindful of our day-to-day lives, right from the moment we wake up; considering the materials with are surrounded by and the lifestyle choice we make as we go about our day, each and every day. Perhaps a tall order and one we think we shouldn’t need to make; the system should just make it right.

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