Coffee-addicted Britain is leaving a mountain of toxic waste for the next generation as scientists warn it could take decades for paper cups from Starbucks, Pret a Manger and other chains to decompose.
The environmental cost of the coffee-to-go culture has been highlighted amid growing concerns that much of the public wrongly believe the cups are recycled, when in fact they are dumped in the green bin in the office or the recycling bin on the street.
While the paper can be recycled, the problem arises because recycling plants do not have the facility to remove the plastic lining which makes the cups impermeable.
Chris Cheeseman, a professor of materials resources engineering at Imperial College London, says the polyethylene is resistant to degradation and could take around 30 years to break down. “Even then we don’t know for sure, because nobody has looked at the cup specifically,” added Cheeseman.
Even if there were no plastic lining, the cup could take at least two years to start breaking down because of the high quality paper. “In terms of environmental impact the cellulose fibre is potentially more of an issue than the plastic,” he said.
“This could take 18 months to two years to start to break down and then it produces methane gas which is probably not collected.”
For health and safety reasons the paper must be virgin, prompting claims that it takes at least 100,000 trees to fuel Britain’s coffee habit a year.
Last week the Liberal Democrats called for a 5p tax on coffee cups following the success of the plastic bag tax in a bid to change consumer behaviour.
Parminter is planning to call all the main coffee chains to talks to discuss the issue of recycling and pressure them into doing more.
Simply Cups, a company that collects cups from businesses and event organisers for specialist recycling has launched a plastic product developed from the cups.
It estimates the number of cups in circulation could be as high as 5bn when caterers, hotels, restaurants such as McDonald and shops such as Waitrose and Greggs are taken into account.
Efforts to fight paper cup waste will be centre stage in Manchester city centre next week when a series of giant cup-shaped bins will appear on pavements.
Charity Hubbub has launched the scheme with the city council and high street coffee retailers in a bid to change coffee-drinker habits. It says the cups collected will be taken to a specialist recycling centre and turned into plastic pellets which can then be used in products such as garden furniture.
Jason Cotta, managing director of Costa, said the company was hugely concerned with this important issue and it had partnered with a university to understand the lifecycle of a cup once it left its stores. It was also trialling in-store waste disposal and since April has been donating 25p to anti-litter charities every time a customer uses a disposal cup.