Earlier this year, Chef-turned-waste-activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall drew attention to the huge problem of coffee cup waste. He claimed that in the U.K., less than 6 million takeaway hot beverage cups are recycled each year, while 7 million are thrown out each day, and specifically called on Starbucks and Costa to be more transparent about their cups. Meanwhile, 91 percent of respondents in a survey of nearly 2,500 U.S. adults said they expect food and beverage brands to actively help increase the recycling of their packages. Despite all this, coffee cups and flexible plastic pouches – both of which are difficult to recycle – are still being widely used due to their convenience and aesthetics.
Innovations from a UK-based partnership and The Dow Chemical Company (Dow) offer potential solutions to these materials challenges.
Consultancy Nextek partnered with recycling manufacturer AShortWalk to develop a new resin – dubbed NextCupCycle – made from paper coffee cups. Nextek’s managing director, Dr. Edward Kosior, who is also a professor at Brunel University London, believes that the key is to “play to the strengths” of materials in their combined form.
The recycling challenge has historically been tied to the mix of paper and plastic in hot beverage cups; the paper is tightly bonded with polyethylene plastic coating to prevent it from getting soggy, but polyethylene cannot be recycled with ordinary paper waste by most local recycling facilities. The Independent reported that less than 0.25 percent of the estimated 3 billion paper cups used each year in the U.K. are currently recycled, and that there are only two specialist facilities in the U.K. that can separate plastic from paper for recycling.
“We come across a lot of packing where the materials are so tightly combined that if you try to separate them you spend a lot of time and energy and neither component comes out very pure,” Kosior told The Independent. “So we recognised that rather than spending time pulling them apart we should be looking at what happens when we combine them together.”
Created through four years of research by Dr. John Mitchell, supervised by Dr. Chris Cheesman, at Imperial College London, the new resin is up to 40 percent stronger than conventional plastics in weight-handling capabilities and can be moulded into products at “high speeds.” The resin aims for a 50:50 ratio of paper to plastic to improve the adhesion between the two materials, and by-products such as plastic lids and straws can be added to help achieve that mix.
“Paper cups use very high-quality, very strong cellulose. So the flakes can turn a brittle and not especially tough plastic into something much tougher,” explained Cheesman. “This makes the material particularly suitable for turning into products where wood is still often used today.”
“We have used our expertise in polymer composites to develop innovative mixtures of the high quality paper fibres and plastic coatings and the occasional lid, spoon and straw into high strength composites that can be used in a wide range of building and consumer products,” Kosior told edie.
Simply Cups, which recycles single-use paper cups for companies such as Costa and McDonald’s, is working with Nextek and AShortWalk to trial numerous coffee shop and cafeteria products in select locations in London. According to edie, the first of these are being used starting today at the Museum of London Docklands.
Future plans include developing a recycling plant for exclusive production of NextCupCycle resin. Kosier estimates, “One recycling plant could recycle half of the annual volume of U.K. coffee cups creating many durable long-life products and displacing virgin materials,” and believes such a facility could be operational by the end of 2017.
Stateside, Dow has introduced a new product to its line of RecycleReady™ Technology: a flexible stand-up pouch that is fully recyclable and has polyethylene-based barrier film made with RETAIN™ polymer modifiers. Dow claims it is the first package of its kind with a barrier film that can be recycled in a polyethylene recycling stream.
“This technology is a breakthrough in packaging design for recyclability. It possesses the properties of a multi-layer pouch, but behaves like a pure polyethylene bag in the recycling stream. We are very excited," said Kelly Cramer, a project manager at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC).
Dow launched a similar flexible stand-up pouch late last year that bears the SPC’s How2Recycle label and won an R&D 100 Award. The pouches are being used to hold Seventh Generation’s natural dishwashing detergent pods and can be dropped off for recycling at more than 18,000 store drop-off locations throughout North America.
The new pouches are similar – they will bear the same “Store Drop-Off” How2Recycle label – but offer the added benefits of enhanced barrier characteristics, which can allow added protection for products such as granola, nuts and other food items. Dow stated in its press release that with such technologies, it aims to divert packaging waste from landfill and incineration, increase post-consumer recycling yields, and aid the creation of a circular economy for plastics packaging.
“RecycleReady™ Technology is a great example of how we can bring breakthrough chemistry and process technology together to meet the needs of converters, brand owners, retailers and consumers,” said Stacy Fields, the North America director for Packaging Solutions at Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics. “This [barrier technology] has never been done before, and it will provide new options for brand owners and retailers to offer recyclable packaging for many products that consumers enjoy.”