The National Cup Recycling Scheme launched in 2018 and has saved over 150 million paper cups from landfill. If we were to position these end to end in a direct line, their combined distance in kilometres would reach further than from Valpak’s office in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, to Cairns, on the East Coast of Australia. As a result of the Scheme’s success, the UK paper cup recycling rate has increased from 1 in 400 cups being recycled in the UK in in 2017, to 1 in 17 in 2020.

The Scheme now entering its third year provides the ideal opportunity to reflect on this significant result and set out the path for its future success. The first step to this is to dispel the outdated myth that paper cups cannot be recycled in the UK; the second step is to continue to grow the UK’s infrastructure for collecting paper cups.  

Paper cups used for hot drinks can be recycled in the UK. In fact, there are three UK paper mills that accept paper cups. Together these have the capacity to process all paper cups consumed in the UK. The process for recycling a standard polyethylene lined cup, the kind used by the majority of retailers, is only slightly different to the standard process for recycling paper. The challenge, therefore, lies not in the recyclability but in the collection of paper cups.

To be recycled paper cups need to be collected in a separate waste stream. Many retailers realise that these are typically consumed on-the-go often on the high street or from a drive-thru and have installed cup recycling points inside their stores which are designed for you to be able to return your cup for it to be recycled. The National Cup Recycling Scheme has increased the number of waste collectors that collect paper cups. Starting from only 5 in 2018, the Scheme now has nearly 30 waste collectors signed up which increases the UK’s paper cup collection coverage.

While paper cups remain a component of daily, on-the-go packaging, the National Cup Recycling Scheme provides an effective recycling system for paper cups.