Veolia organizes a national recycling service for used disposable cups

Over the past few years, lifestyle changes and the expansion of on-the-go coffee and tea consumption in the United Kingdom have led to a rapid rise in the use of single-use cups. Given this context, in 2017 Veolia had the idea of setting up a collection and recycling service for used disposable cups across the country.
The essential
Making packaging more environmentally friendly, ensuring that resources are sustainably reused more effectively.
Divert 99% of the some 2.5 billion cups thrown away each year in the United Kingdom from landfill or incineration. Already firmly moving along this path, Veolia will soon be in a position to achieve this goal.
Veolia's response
A comprehensive recycling scheme, from the moment the consumer finishes their coffee to repurposing the used cup.
Published in the dossier of July 2019


Jaz Rabadia, Senior Manager of Energy & Initiatives EMEA at Starbucks

PV: What is Starbucks’ strategy for recycling cups and plastic waste?

J.R.: Starbucks is working closely with partners like Veolia to implement practical solutions. Together, we first of all sought to understand the composition in terms of weight and volume of the waste produced in our stores. From there, Veolia identified seven distinct waste streams — coffee cups, aluminum cans, organic waste, plastics, cardboard, coffee capsules, and general waste — that should be separated, and then defined our recycling standards. This has allowed us to maximize the volume and type of waste sent for subsequent recycling, as well as lower our general waste costs. In concrete terms, the waste is sorted in the back office by our staff to reduce contamination risks, then collected by Veolia for recycling. This process has allowed us to divert 99% of waste from landfill.

PV: What added value do you expect from a partner like Veolia?

J.R.: With Veolia, we have been able to create and roll out recycling standards in our stores in Great Britain and remain up-to-date on legislative changes. Veolia understands the complexities and challenges of retail activities and represents a key partner in our efforts to reduce waste.

PV: What do you expect from your “Cup Fund,” launched in 2019 with Hubbub?

J.R.: We have allocated it one million pounds (US$1.3 million) to support ambitious cup recycling projects. The aim is to boost the volume collected by 35 million units, thus preventing 420 metric tons of waste per year. The fund is financed by Starbucks’ 5 pence cup charge, introduced in 2018 to encourage customers to choose reusable options instead. The money earned is then donated to Hubbub, an environmental charity that supports initiatives to reduce plastics. The fund gives twelve winners between £50,000 and £100,000 to help them raise awareness of this problem among communities in the UK. Hubbub advises them on setting up recycling infrastructure that generates long-term benefits, in liaison with industrial partners.

PV: What does your recyclable cup innovation challenge involve?

J.R.: The NextGenCup challenge is open to designers from all over the world. The idea is to rework the coffee cup, making it fully recyclable and/or compostable. As part of the NextGen consortium, which aims to address single-use food packaging waste globally, Starbucks has committed 10 million dollars (£7 M) to developing and helping commercialize an entirely recyclable and compostable cup. This new-generation fiber cup could transform the 250 billion fibers from recycling into an invaluable material!

At the office, in tube or train stations, or at the coffee shop on the corner: for the past few years, disposable coffee (and tea) cups have permeated the everyday lives of workers, travelers and passers-by. The British use — and discard — 5,000 cups a minute. This unbridled consumption represents 30,000 metric tons of annual waste, bearing in mind that only 0.25% of this volume, i.e. one cup in 400, is recycled. Until Veolia’s initiative, the vast majority of cups went to landfill or incineration. The reason? During their manufacture, a fine layer of polyethylene (PE) plastic is bonded to the cardboard to ensure the cup remains leaktight. However, this fine layer of PE plastic complicates both recycling measures and paper mill processing.

The first scalable European system

Grasping the urgency of finding a solution commensurate to the issue at stake, in 2017 Veolia launched a national response: setting up the first scalable European system covering the entire supply chain, from the moment the consumer finishes their drink to the cup’s recycling. Its goal is to collect 120 million units in 2019, i.e. a spectacular 300% increase compared to 2017. “It’s good timing because our offering coincided with a major wake-up call about plastics in 2018, and even major chains were looking for solutions,” acknowledged Matthew Osmond, National Accounts Sales Director, Veolia in the UK.

Closed loop

Veolia is the first in the United Kingdom to offer such a nationwide scheme. The principle is to recover used cups before they enter the waste stream, thus avoiding any food contamination. The national scheme offers to install dedicated, purpose-built bins at consumption sites (points of sale, companies, etc.). Designed to be able to separate the lid from the rest of the cup, the bins require consumers to stack the cups upside down on a support to drain off any remaining liquid. The cups are then gathered in a bag and placed in a cardboard box collected by Veolia on appointment. Shipped to the Essex recycling center, the cups are decontaminated there before being sent to plants where the paper is separated from the plastic film. The paper fiber is reused to produce all sorts of new products: cup holders, egg cartons, cellulose wadding for home insulation, etc.

An exceptional partnership

The development of Veolia’s offering was made possible through the involvement of several key takeout coffee/tea chains in the UK, such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, Costa Coffee, and Caffè Nero, all of whom agreed to carry out trials at their points of sale. “Three of these major names are long-standing Veolia clients,” highlighted Matthew Osmond. “We have long proved to them our know-how and expertise on the recycling market. In their view, we were best placed to come up with this kind of solution.” All the same, Veolia had to deliver a made-to-measure collection solution for each of them that was both flexible and tailored to their own needs. “We had to reassure them about the scheme’s flexibility,” explained Matthew Osmond, “as they wanted to avoid any interference or hindrance to their teams’ work.”

Positive feedback

Almost two years after the launch, the chains have expressed their satisfaction with the national collection service, in terms of both the process and the method. “Not to mention the lasting value creation this brings them,” added Matthew Osmond. “Today the partners see the concrete benefits of the operation, receiving recycled products from the Essex plant: small notepads, bags, etc. This offers them an effective tool for communicating with consumers and thus enhancing their brand image!”


Eco-friendly steps in the 2017 YouGov survey

To launch its national scheme, Veolia relied on a consumer use survey, conducted by the British firm YouGov. This survey is encouraging in more than one respect: the vast majority of those questioned (88%) would use a purpose-built bin to ensure that their cup could be recycled. Almost half (47%) would even be willing to keep their cup for longer if they knew that they would be going past this type of bin, and almost a quarter (24%) would make a detour to use one. The biggest takeout hot drink consumers usually throw away their cups at work (52%), as well as other places en route, such as railway and tube stations.

Public authority involved

Alongside this national program, in 2018 Veolia in the UK launched “Good to go” in partnership with Westminster City Council and the Heart of London Business Alliance. “It’s the first scheme of its kind with a local authority,” stated Matthew Osmond. “It’s a fantastic opportunity!” The cups collected in Westminster are also transported to Veolia’s Essex site. Between Veolia’s road sweepers — real mobile recycling centers that roam the city center streets — and the special bins installed at the heart of London, the goal is to recycle 500,000 cups in 2019.

Ripple effect

Just two years ago, only two companies including Veolia were involved in collecting and recycling used cups. Nowadays, eight of them have joined the national service, confirming the solution’s merits. “Awareness about the issue of plastics has been ramping up over the past two years,” reiterated Matthew Osmond. “This growing awareness is particularly due to media coverage of the topic, which puts twofold pressure on chains: pressure from consumers and their concerns regarding ethics, responsibility and sustainability; and pressure from the public authorities, who are carefully monitoring the situation in Europe.”



* Rapport du comité pour l’audit environnemental de la Chambre des communes, January 2018