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Harvesting the Urban Forest

It appears we can apportion blame on COVID-19 for most of our current woes, one of which would be the resurgence of paper-plastic coffee cups. Even prior to the pandemic we were struggling to properly recycle these take-away cups. 

The UK, for example, uses over 2.5 billion single-use coffee cups – enough to stretch around the world roughly five and a half times – but less than one in 400 – just 0.25% – are recycled. Around 500,000 cups are littered every day –an unsightly and damaging blight on our environment.

In essence these cups are technically recyclable, something that some coffee companies actively promote on their packaging, however, due to the complicated way they are produced, the vast majority of coffee cups do not end up being recycled.

Though they are made largely of paper, disposable coffee cups are lined with plastic, typically polyethylene, that is tightly bonded to the paper making the cups waterproof and therefore able to contain liquid. Recycling these coffee cups is further hampered by the fact they are contaminated with drink.

As a consequence, these cups cannot be recycled at standard paper recycling plants and must instead be taken to special facilities – of which only a few exist throughout Europe.

It is time to flip this challenge on its head and take a transformational approach. 

What if we viewed these cups as containing potentially valuable raw material that we can tap into, given a strong collection infrastructure. 

Following years of research on paper plastic composites, Nextek has been deep diving into ways in which strong blends of paper fibre and plastics can be re-used and one of the first products to emerge is the rcup –  the world’s first re-usable cup made from recycled paper cups.

Now WRAP Cymru has brought Nextek and UK’s leading composite decking manufacturer, Ecodek, together to find a way to clean and shred used coffee cups to produce strong polymer composites. This collaborative project – one in a series of recycled content trials funded by the Welsh Government and led by WRAP Cymru – seeks to demonstrate that such composites can be turned into a totally waterproof building material, which can use up to 200 cups per square meter.  

This innovative approach aims to shift away from our current reliance on wood in building materials and harvest the ‘urban forest’ instead. We are quite literally surrounded by awkward to recycle materials such as plastic laminated papers or cartons that could be turned into a unique composite, that has endless possibilities

This material has the potential to be used for multiple applications, from waterproof decking and furniture to providing structurally strong materials on a much bigger scale. Its durability, strength and versatility could easily match wood as a building material, in fact in many instances it would surpass it.

Whilst this is not the first time that used coffee cups have been given a new life, it could be a game changer in that it will be able to re-use a substantial volume of the world’s single use plastic cups and turn them into environmental friendly building material, harvested from our urban waste.

This just could be the turning point where the once maligned disposable coffee cup is turned into valuable material for everyday products.

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Professor Edward Kosior

Professor Kosior’s expertise in the plastics recycling sector spans 46 years, split between 23 years as an academic and 23 years working in plastic packaging recycling. He has been instrumental in designing numerous modern recycling plants and has achieved a number of patented recycling breakthroughs. In 2004 Professor Kosior founded Nextek Ltd to provide consultancy services to assist in the strategic approaches to sustainable packaging, waste reduction and minimal life cycle impact. He is involved with many industry associations, universities, and research organisations and is a Fellow of the Society of Plastics Engineering and Fellow of the Institute of Materials which awarded him the Prince Philip Medal for “Polymers in the Service of Man” in 2019. He also provides support to organisations such as the Earth Champions Foundation, Plastics Oceans, PEW Foundation Trust on the Project: Stopping Ocean Plastics.

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