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Product, Service & Design Innovation
New Solutions for Coffee Capsules, Hard-to-Recycle Products Reach Commercial Scale

Coffee cups, coffee capsules and MDF are some of the most popular and hard-to-recycle products in circulation, accounting for hundreds of thousands of tons of waste sent to landfill each year — an issue that companies and governments are striving to address. New initiatives and innovations across industries could, however, set a new standard for these problematic products.

Coffee cups, coffee capsules and MDF are some of the most popular and hard-to-recycle products in circulation, accounting for hundreds of thousands of tons of waste sent to landfill each year — an issue that companies and governments are striving to address. New initiatives and innovations across industries could, however, set a new standard for these problematic products.

First, UK MPs are getting serious about tackling the problem of packaging waste by launching an inquiry into the environmental impact of coffee cup and plastic bottle waste following calls for a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups and talks of a plastic bottle deposit scheme. The inquiry is being conducted by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), who plans to investigate what efforts are currently being made by businesses and policymakers to find solutions and reduce waste.

Coffee cups and plastic bottles represent a significant challenge for the establishment of a circular economy in the UK. Only a fraction of the seven million plastic bottles sold in Britain each day are recycled. The rest — over six million — end up in landfills or are leaked into the environment. Coffee cups meet a similar fate — less than one percent of the 5000 coffee cups discarded every minute in the UK are recycled.

“Our throwaway society has given us a tide of litter on our beaches, dead seabirds and fish and plastic in our food. We all enjoy a takeaway coffee or tea, but the cups they are served in are particularly difficult to recycle because they combine plastic coating and cardboard,” said Mary Creagh, MP and EAC Chair.

“Our inquiry will be taking a serious look at solutions like the use of different materials, better recycling and bottle deposit return schemes.”

The EAC will be asking businesses to provide evidence on how the public and private sector can work together to introduce better policies that reduce waste and increase awareness of recycling among the public. It will also be drawing on examples of best practice from other countries to find solutions to the issue.

Key questions the EAC is seeking to answer include:

  • What are the challenges of recycling these products? What obstacles have prevented greater progress in increasing recycling rates?
  • Are consumers aware of the complexities of recycling these products? How could we increase awareness amongst the public and what impact would this have?
  • How effective, to date, have government and local been at reducing waste and increasing the recycling of coffee cups and plastic bottles?
  • What is the likely impact of leaving the EU on UK efforts to reduce coffee cup and plastic waste?

Companies including Costa Coffee, Danone and Nestlé Water are already heading up initiatives to move the food and beverage industry towards greater circularity. The former has launched a cup recycling scheme in 2,000 of its stores across the UK, while the latter two have recently teamed up with startup Origin Materials to develop a PET plastic bottle made entirely from bio-based materials.

Compact and convenient as they might be, coffee capsules pose a considerable problem. Seventy-five percent of all coffee capsules end up in landfills and contribute to the ever-growing issue of plastic pollution. But startup Halo Coffee may have found the solution. Backed by Cranfield University’s Business Incubation Centre (CUBIC), the company has developed the world’s first fully compostable capsule.

“We believe that the major coffee companies aren’t doing enough to combat waste, so if they won’t we will,” said co-founder Nils Leonard. “We want to set a new standard for coffee capsules and, in a year, we will have forced the whole industry to change.”

The capsules are derived from bamboo and paper and biodegrade within 90 days, unlike traditional aluminum capsules which can take up to 200 years to decompose. Replacing the 13,500 non-biodegradable capsules that end up in landfills every minute with Halo Coffee’s could significantly reduce the beverage industry’s footprint, especially considering 340 million coffee capsules are consumed annually in the UK alone.

“Aluminum and plastic coffee capsules are difficult to recycle, so most of them end up in the bin — up to 75 percent are currently being sent to landfill every minute. Most people don’t understand the irreversible damage these coffee capsules are inflicting on the planet,” said Richard Hardwick, Halo co-founder.

“It’s a design challenge that no-one has cracked. Until now. I’ve been creating premium espresso for 23 years and capsules for over 10 years, and this is the culmination of what I’ve been trying to deliver to coffee lovers for all this time.”

Halo’s capsule is currently patented, but the company hopes to make the technology available to other retailers with the hopes of benefiting the coffee community as a whole.

Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is one of the most widely used materials in the construction and furniture industries — and is one of the most difficult to recycle. A new technology pioneered by MDF Recovery could hold the key to a commercially viable process to recover wood fiber from used or off-cuts of MDF, extending the shelf life of the material and keeping it out of landfill. As a vote of confidence, SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK has invested £250,000 for the commercialization of the project, which has been in research and development for the last six years.

“The SUEZ investment provides a significant boost to MDF Recovery in our quest to commercialize the technology to make single-use MDF a thing of the past. The recovered fiber produced by the process is of the same high quality as fiber obtained from virgin wood and can be used as a direct substitute in the manufacturing process,” said Craig Bartlett, MDF Recovery co-founder. “The MDF Recovery technology can be retrofitted or designed into new plants and offers a robust solution for reworking waste and increasing the yield at the MDF manufacturing facility.”

Approximately 350,000 tons of MDF are disposed of each year in the UK. The new technology aims to reduce the amount of MDF headed to landfill and incineration by creating a new secondary material source for the natural fiber industry that eliminates the need for virgin materials. MDF Recovery estimates that it could recycle between 30,000 to 60,000 tons of MDF waste in the UK each year and almost three million tons globally.

This marks the second time the two companies have worked together to tackle the MDF problem. Previously, SUEZ and MDF Recovery launched a closed-loop pilot project as a part of Innovate UK — which is still being implemented — that saw manufacturers take back material from customers.

“Zero waste production for the wood component of MDF is now a real possibility. This is the perfect fit with SUEZ’s commitment to delivering practical, environmentally responsible and innovative waste management solutions,” said SUEZ technical development director Stuart Hayward-Higham.

Finally, the Close Loop Fund (CLF) is requesting proposals for projects that collect, sort and/or process post-consumer polypropylene (PP) plastic.

Research indicates that material recovery facilities (MRFs) can profitably sort PP by upgrading or expanding sorting equipment, as well as by leveraging innovative technologies. In addition, plastic recovery facilities (PRFs) and secondary MRFs can drive value to MRFs by purchasing “mixed” bales of plastic and further sorting for value. The profitability and applicability of solutions can vary depending on the local context including volume, collection programs, population and end-of-market proximity. CLF is interested in any project that addresses this.

Examples of candidate projects include:

  • MRFs servicing large municipalities receive enough volume to justify the addition of conveyers and optical sorters to sort and bale polypropylene.
  • Advanced image recognition and robotics could be applied to enhance the efficiency and capture rate of sorting multiple plastic types, including PP.
  • By adding or updating star screens to a smaller gauge, some MRFs can efficiently sort non-bottle rigid and small format plastics into a mixed bale (i.e. #3-7 plastics) and reduce contamination to other streams.
  • Projects that improve the quality (color, grade etc) of PCR PP

CLF Support:

  • Closed Loop Fund seeks to provide municipalities, MRF operators, PRF operators and/or other entities with flexible, below market financing and technical assistance to update their facilities and equipment in order to increase PP recycling.
  • CLF may fund up to $5M per project and can support arranging additional financing, if needed. Loan terms may range from 3 – 8 years.
  • Acceptable uses include equipment purchase, lease financing, working capital, and real estate or facility loans for refinancing or expansion.
  • Equity requirements: The borrower, or a sponsor of the borrower, should be able to contribute 10% of the project’s total funding in equity.

To apply, complete the standard CLF application (available online at submit to [email protected].