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A New Technique to Strip the Plastic Film Off Trash Will Let Us Recycle Billions of Disposable Cups

The plastic-coated paper cup is a recycling conundrum, but one British paper company has a solvent plan to keep them from landfills.
July 22, 2013, 2:19pm
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Disposable coffee cups are confusing. No one ever seems quite sure if they belong in recycling, compost, or trash. And really, it all depends on the materials involved and your local municipal services. But all too often, for the sake of convenience, they end up in the garbage bin and, not too long after, in a landfill.

Last week, British paper manufacturer James Cropper unveiled a new way to deal with the environmental burden of the coffee cup. In response to the particular problem of the mixed material within, the company has developed a process to separate the paper content of a cup from its plastic lining and opened a new plant to specifically manage reclaimed fiber in Kendal, England.


Cropper’s process involves softening the cup in a warm solution. The cup then separates into its component paper and plastic parts. The plastic is sloughed away and recycled. Meanwhile, the leftover water and pulp are examined for impurities, which are then extracted. What remains is high-quality pulp that Cropper hopes to use in upscale packaging.

The company estimates that this may salvage 40 percent of the 2.5 billion cups that are pitched each year in the United Kingdom. Most likely, the coffee cups could be disposed of in mixed recycling collections, separated out, and then transported to Cropper’s facility.

An additional boon of this new process is that part of the energy intensive paper-making process can now be circumvented by Cropper’s re-use of preexisting pulp materials. In a conversation with Bloomberg, chairman Mark Cropper noted, “Rather than having to buy pulp from overseas, we built this plant to have our own supply.”

Efforts like this need to be put into context. In 2003, the government of the United Kingdom created the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS) in an attempt to comply with the European Union’s Landfill Directive. According to the LATS, each locality is given a limit on the amount of biodegradable municipal, waste it can toss in a landfill. Since 2010, for each ton over the limit, local governments have to pay a fine of one hundred and fifty pounds.

According to Samantha MacBride, an assistant professor at CUNY’s Baruch College and the author of the book Recycling Reconsidered, this economic interest in limiting landfill waste may translate into different economic policies than what we’d see here in the States. She noted that “a town or a city in the U.K. might be willing to pay this paper recycler thirty pounds a ton [to take care of the coffee cups] because that’s better than paying the landfill tax of over a hundred pounds per ton.” In the United States, we have different economic policies surrounding recycling so it’s hard to say whether this would be cost-effective here.

That’s what much of this is all about anyway – cost effectiveness. “The way you need to think of recycling is it’s not some kind of big social coordinated goal of saving the planet,” MacBride added. “It gets talked about that way, but what it is is a set of business practices, basically. No company is ever going to engage in any kind of technological development or service provision unless they can, at the end of the day, make a profit.” And Cropper certainly knows how to make a profit – they provide the majority of paper for hardcover books in the U.K., as well as the material for the Royal Legion’s remembrance poppies.

In the United States alone, over 58 billion disposable cups end up in a landfill every year. While MacBride insists that they don’t pose any more of a problem than any other mixed material, she also acknowledges that there hasn’t been any effective way to include them in recycling streams. Perhaps if Cropper’s technology is as successful as the company hopes and the economics make sense, this will offer a route out of the landfill for these very commonly disposed items.