Disposable coffee cups can be difficult to recycle due to their plastic lining, but recycling company Simply Cups has found a solution and teamed up with 7-Eleven to help divert cups from landfill.
Australia has a coffee addiction. As a nation, we use more than 50,000 disposable coffee cups every half hour, with an estimated three billion takeaway cups thrown away every year, according to statistics from Sustainability Victoria.
These cups can be difficult to recycle because of their polyethylene lining, which contaminates standard methods of recycling paper. Standard household recycling bins aren’t properly equipped to handle them, but a confused public has meant that the cups often end up in the wrong bin.
Even the biodegradable or compostable coffee cups are somewhat problematic. They are rarely composted because Australia’s existing facilities aren’t able to process them effectively yet, according to Sustainability Victoria.
The ABC’s War on Waste led to an increased attention on the topic, and reusable coffee cups like KeepCup rocketed into popularity. But while bringing your own cups is a good start, waste managers are fighting an uphill battle against a tide of waste.
7-Eleven, one of the largest takeaway coffee destinations in Australia, recently partnered with Australian recycling company Simply Cups to tackle the problem of cup recycling.
Designed by solutions-based business Closed Loop, Simply Cups has been operating in the UK since 2014. The scheme was considered a success and brought into Australia in 2017.
Simply Cups collection bins have been set up in more than 200 7-Eleven stores across Australia, with 50 more set up in large-scale locations like universities or construction sites.
7-Eleven sells around 70 million cups every year and helps fund the recycling of every cup sold.
Lisa Birch, Senior Marketing Manager at 7-Eleven, says the company felt the best way to pioneer a solution to the coffee cup issue was to partner with Closed Loop.
Lisa says 7-Eleven has been focused on researching the best way to dispose of coffee cups, as that is the biggest consumer packaging product it puts into the market.
“We did a lot of research into different material recovery facilities and met with independent consultants. When we spoke with Closed Loop we got to understand their program in the UK and felt that supporting them with the launch into Australia was the best way to recycle coffee cups into the future,” Lisa says.
Lisa says that 7-Eleven hasn’t changed how their cups are designed, as even if they were to go compostable, there is still no way of properly disposing of them.
“There are lots of cups out there that promise that they are biodegradable or compostable, but there’s no mass market way for that to happen properly. To properly dispose of them requires specific criteria, so we’re continuing to supply our usual cups,” she says.
Collection points at 7-Eleven stores are able to collect and store up to 1000 cups thanks to Simply Cups’ method of disposing them. First, the lid is recycled separately, as they’re made of plastic that can be recycled already. Any excess liquid is then poured out and the cups are stacked top of each other to maximise the amount of space.
Because of the stacked system, the bins are able to fit significantly more cups before collection. The system accepts most cups, including those that aren’t from 7-Eleven, to be recycled, as well as Slurpee cups.
While people often buy their coffees then take them to go, Lisa says that having a drop-off point available at 7-Eleven stores allows people to find a collection point for any coffee cups they may have.
“One of the most important things for success was to make sure that people working at large organisations that drink plenty of coffee know about the recycling program. These are places like big office towers, but also hospitals, government organisations, commercial business districts and cafes.
“Our main aim is to ensure coffee cups are being recycled. We’ve just finished a campaign period to build awareness and tell people about the program,” she says.
Closed Loop began operating in Australia in 2001 before setting up in the UK in 2004. Both sides of the business were set up to look at how a circular economy could be encouraged with recycling.
To date, Simply Cups has collected more than one million coffee cups that would have gone to landfill.
Robert Pascoe, Managing Director at Closed Loop, says he was concerned when he found out that coffee cups weren’t being recycled when he believed they had been.
“Because of the plastic coating on the inside of the cups, it wasn’t suitable for recycling. We also found out that when the cups go to the paper mill, they can often draw out more fibre as it can get caught up in the cup when it’s removed,” he says.
Robert and Closed Loop then began looking for ways to turn these coffee cups from a waste product into a valuable resource.
“The polyethylene lining only makes up six per cent of the disposable cup, but that’s what makes all the paper useless. There are a few processes that can melt the plastic off the paper, but these are few and far between, which makes it not commercially viable to a lot of traditional recycling facilities.
“To fix that, we began setting up partnerships with businesses to develop a process for recycling coffee cups. We found a method that worked in the UK and we decided to bring a similar version to Australia last year,” he says.
To start the process in Australia, Simply Cups needed to collect enough material to begin designing recycled products. The company needed 1000 tonnes of raw material to be considered viable. Considering that the average coffee cup weighs around 10 grams, the challenge then became about collection.
“We went to market to find places where we could collect cups, so places like coffee shops, offices and universities. 7-Eleven’s partnership has been really helpful, but we’re still looking to increase collection rates,” Robert says.
“We’ve been growing exponentially since we first started. In our first month, we collected a total of 900 cups. Now, going on six months we’ve managed to reach 200,000 cups a month. We’re currently looking at being able to collect 40 million cups annually, but that number is still growing.”
Robert says Simply Cups still has plenty of work ahead of them. While they’ve collected one million cups so far, that’s less than one per cent of the total number of cups being sent to landfill each year.
He explains that Simply Cups is using a two-pronged approach to reduce the number of coffee cups being thrown away.
“We’ve been talking to major brand owners like 7-Eleven and Muffin Break, which have come on board, and several others who are also selling the cups. When we set up a partnership, we have an obligation to collect the same amount of cups and divert them from landfill.
“The other method is to promote the usage of reusable cups. With the disposable cup market growing at 10 per cent at a minimum per year, we need to make sure we’re keeping up. While there will always be a need for the disposable containers, we’re trying to get technology companies to come on board and encourage more people to use reusables.”
Simply Cups has designed and sold their own reusable coffee cup in the UK. Called rCup, each is made up of material recovered from six recycled coffee cups. The company released the rCup to the Australian market in July.
HOW IT WORKS
Robert says he values transparency and wants to encourage people to get on board with recycling. Because coffee cup recycling can be a confusing process, Simply Cups allows people to come in to their facilities and see how the process works.
“We want to show people exactly what happens to a cup, from when its thrown out to where it goes when its recycled.
“Ultimately, our plan is to show people how cups are binned, collected, baled, turned to raw material then into a product,” he says.
Robert says they have had a few local Australian technology companies come on board already to help find new and efficient ways of recycling the coffee cups.
“One of these companies we’ve partnered with is Australian company Newtecpoly who have introduced us to technology that will turn plastic recycling on its head,” he says.
“They have a prototype plant in Moama that uses an amazing process that’s able to recycle both the plastic and the paper from the cups.”
Robert says Newtecpoly’s PolyWaste Technology is able to use the long paper fibres from coffee cups and turn them into a solid polymer that can be used in a variety of products, from food trays, to tomato stakes and concrete substitute.
“This is one of the first times this patented process has been used and the beauty for us is that it’s the perfect thing for plastic and paper. It’s very exciting technology that we can use to make products like car stops in car parks or reusable coffee cups that can go back to 7-Eleven,” he says.
“In layman’s terms, two hoppers are on the side of the machine which we’re able to put the cups into. Inside it’s a closed cylinder with holes in it.”
Robert says that once the material is inside the hopper, hydraulic rams compact the product from the hopper into the central chamber and pushes them up under pressure.
“The rapidly rotating cylinder generates heat through friction, which melts the polymers and paper fibres, which then comes out as a liquid plastic that is then sent to a traditional extrusion process into a mould,” Robert explains.
Robert says they’re then able to turn this plastic into products with a mould and can handle up to 20 per cent contamination.
“It ticks all the boxes from an environmental and commercial point of view.
“We’re currently going through 15,000 tonnes of coffee cups a year as a nation and this continues to grow annually.”
Simply Cups has been dedicated to making sure recycled materials were kept and used in Australia instead of sending them overseas.
“These items are a valuable resource, so it doesn’t make sense to just put them in the ground or send them overseas,” Robert says.
“With the recent issues in the recycling industry, the public has really gotten on board and have become interested in how the public and private sectors can handle the demand.”