Is the outrage against paper cups sustainable?

cups1As readers of the Daily Mail will know, there has been much media discussion over recent months that paper cups, the type we all get our ‘to-go’ coffee in, are a Bad Thing.

Thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s BBC 1 programme ‘War on Waste’ paper cups have come in for much criticism, which the FPA is working hard to overturn.  Pro2Pac in March 2017 is a great opportunity for the packaging sector to discuss progress to date and debate the way forward and I’m looking forward to joining the conversation.

But in the meantime let’s look at some of the issues, beginning with why we use paper cups in the first place.  For the consumer, paper cups are hygienic and very safe to use, being produced in accordance with strict food contact regulations.  They are lightweight and easy to take on the move, fulfilling a need in our time-poor 24/7 culture that thrives on convenience.  For the operator, paper cups are light to transport and take up minimal storage. Paper cups also are aligned with quality and take ink easily, resulting in the opportunity for fabulous branding and great designs.

Now for the myths. Contrary to media claims, paper cups are recyclable and facilities do exist in the UK to recycle them – the issue is getting them to the right place.  The Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group, of which the FPA is founder member, is dedicated to improving recovery and recycling rates by 2020.  Yes the PET lining is tricky to separate but again the industry is working on this issue and developments are in the pipeline.

red_holiday_cups_2016It’s quite wrong to say that forests are being destroyed to make paper cups. Trees used to produce goods are sustainably managed and in Europe forests are growing at the rate of 1.5 million soccer pitches annually.  The majority of harvested trees are used for timber in the construction sector – just 20% is used for paper and paperboard production. In the UK we consume 9 million tonnes of paper and board annually of which cups account for 0.27%.

The focus on paper cups is puzzling because paper cups are just a tiny fraction of UK packaging – paper cups make up just 0.7% of total paper packaging waste.  Also, it’s vital that we don’t confuse paper cups and carrier bags, they are two quite different scenarios.  A tax on paper cups will not alter consumer behaviour, increase recycling or reduce litter. Do we really think someone who throws their litter out of a car will change their behaviour because they’ve paid an extra 5p for a cup of coffee?

Finally, let’s celebrate and not threaten our fantastic UK retail coffee sector.  Surely no-one wants to see a reduction in the rate of consumption of coffee away from home. This sector is a UK success story, clocking up significant double digit growth in recent years, employing well over 100 000 people across more than 20 000 outlets that turnover in excess of £8 billion.

We acknowledge there are challenges and there is more work to be done but the industry has recognised the paper cup issue and is working together in an unprecedented way to find economically viable and sustainable solutions.  By the time we debate the issue in March, there will be much to report on, so let’s give paper cups a second chance, support our industry and celebrate success.

Martin Kersh is Executive Director of the Foodservice Packaging Association. Join him at Pro2Pac & Waste-Works 2017 when he chairs a lunchtime debate on this topic, register to attend now.

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