CupCycling: from disposable coffee cup to colourful paper

UK paper company James Cropper developed CupCycling, a method to upcycle to-go coffee cups into paper.

Disposable coffee cups are an increasingly environmental headache. We love our coffee, or other hot beverages, on the go as we rush to work or other places we have to be. While paper cups may sound environmentally friendly, it’s not the paper part that is the problem. Disposable paper cups are lined with a layer of polyethylene, which takes specialised equipment to separate. This means that the billions of to-go cups used annually usually end up on the landfill rather than be recycled.

With their CupCycling technology, James Cropper is one of just two facilities in the UK capable of recycling cups. Working with Veolia waste management, they established cup collection stations within restaurants and retailers, including Costa, McDonalds and Selfridges. The cups are delivered to the company’s mill, where the plastic lining and the paper are separated. What’s left is plastic, which is reprocessed, and high quality paper pulp. This pulp James Cropper uses to make new products and packaging material, like moulded fibre packaging. Selfridges, for example, uses paper bags made from their own cups.

The CupCycling facility is capable of recycling 500 million cups per year. However, because of poor collection of cups, only a fraction of the capacity is used. To scale up the process, there has to be better cooperation between retailers, authorities and waste management companies.

Of course, it would be preferable to design cups that are easier to recycle, or, even better, sustainably produced reusable cups, to decrease the amount of waste.

Photos: James Cropper