New uses for UK’s 500,000 single-use coffee cups

An innovative supply chain project, funded by the Welsh Government in partnership with WRAP Cymru, has taken many difficult to recycle items and successfully transformed them into new items, including turning single-use coffee cups into waterproof building materials and decking.

The unique two-year trial brought together several companies, including sustainability experts Nextek and the UK’s leading composite decking manufacturer Ecodek. Together they created a revolutionary new product: the world’s first composite decking made from single-use coffee cups combined with metallised films, such as those used for crisp packets.

The radical trial is one of four projects that took common difficult to recycle waste items and reprocessed them into brand new products with an existing end market. They are aiming to change the way single use plastic is currently used and disposed of, by creating economically viable, sustainable and environmentally beneficial materials. This aligns with UK Plastics Pact targets and its work into developing end markets for difficult to recycle materials.

Ecodek’s new 100% recycled decking can turn 200 coffee cups into a square metre of new decking, which means the project has the potential to recycle a substantial part of the post-consumer single use plastic coffee cups that currently go to landfill, or incineration.

The composite material also incorporates metallised film waste from crisp packets and similar household packaging, and is ideal for both exterior decking and hardwearing building applications. Making use of waste items in this way means the material is more sustainable and can be made to perform as just as well as less sustainable options. The resulting material has the potential to be used for several product applications, and is structurally strong enough for a variety of building applications on a large scale. Furthermore, to ensure the circularity of its new products, Ecodek offers a takeback scheme to ensure products are recycled into new items at the end of their life.

The potential to utilise used, single-use coffee cups is huge, with around 3.2 billion fibre-composite cups placed onto the UK market in 2019, and half a million single use coffee cups disposed of daily in the UK – only 0.25% of which are recycled (WRAP Fibre composite packaging report).

Claire Shrewsbury, WRAP’s Director of Insights & Innovation: These projects provide a unique offering which supports locally manufactured and remanufactured products made from recycled Welsh raw materials. They support the growth of local businesses, and help Welsh people get the maximum value from these products. Not only that but these incredible projects are all working to the same goal to help tackle climate change and creating a circular economy for these difficult to recycle materials. We hope to see more projects like these appearing throughout the UK.”

The recycled material was also used to build a picnic bench which has now been delivered to Coleg Cambria in Deeside, North Wales. The garden of the college where the bench will be located, is where young people are delivering a Welsh Government funded Local Places for nature project. The College has also recently launched NEBOSH (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health) qualifications to meet demand for a new generation of ‘green’ leaders.

William Hogg, Managing Director at Ecodek: “Ecodek are delighted to have been part of this exciting project to develop a new closed loop recycling opportunity for these frequently used materials which has the potential to substantially reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.”

Professor Edward Kosior, founder of Nextek: Our research into paper-plastic composites has led to the development of a unique compound that utilises the disposable cups’ potential as a valuable recycled material. This compound has the potential to be used for multiple applications, from waterproof decking and furniture to providing structurally strong materials on a much bigger scale and its durability, strength and versatility could easily match wood as a building material, in fact in many instances it would surpass it. This has the potential to transform the way we view waste as we learn to tap into and harvest our urban forest.”

A second project, which worked with Frontier Plastics Ltd – part of the Vernacare Group – at their site in South Wales, was a trial which involved the manufacture of medical sharps containers and inner safety shields from 100% recycled polypropylene (rPP). They also successfully incorporated rPP into the manufacture of an indoor food waste and compost caddy manufactured by the well-known Welsh brand Addis Housewares Ltd.

The two items focussed on were a range of black ‘sharps’ containers and then inner safety shields for yellow Sharpesafe containers, used for medical sharps waste such as syringes. The new yellow Sharpesafe range of containers that have been produced through this project have received huge success and will be rolled out across many parts of the NHS. Industry standards have also been updated to recognise and encourage the incorporation of recycled content into the containers, as previously there was no mention of recycled content being allowed. This was a complex project that needed to overcome an initial lack of market confidence in the proposition of recycled PP. In time it was able to show the reliability and diversity of the material, with each product manufactured to a different specification for performance and physical characteristics.

A third project has examined how to recycle common agricultural waste plastics into new products. The aim of this programme is to drive demand for recycled agricultural plastic and contribute to the Welsh circular economy, and utilise this common waste stream across the nation’s farms. The project demonstrated how effective the pre-washing process of agricultural plastic is and meant a higher quantity of product could be recycled. However, more work is required.

A fourth project has successfully created mortar tubs for the construction sector from recycled plastic. In a collaboration between Corilla Plastics, Green Edge Applications and Cardiff University, the team successfully identified over 700 mortar tubs that were heading for landfill or incineration. Using QR codes and mobile phones, they managed to intercept this process to collect, recycle and manufacture them back into new mortar tubs. The project shows the effectiveness and success of using recycled content in plastic tubs and encourages the construction sector to switch to using recycled plastic products. The results of this trial can be applied to any manufacturing process and can be used to support similar projects, not just in Wales but across the globe.

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