Recycling plastic cups: Five things we've learnt from Pixie Lott's investigation

The world has a single-use plastic problem. And it’s more of a mountain than a molehill.

Single-use plastics or disposables are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. Examples are things like straws, coffee stirrers, plastic bags, fizzy drink and water bottles and most food packaging.

When it comes to recycling paper cups the big coffee chains have made a lot of noise about their recycling schemes - but what happens to the plastic cups they use for iced drinks such as smoothies and frappe lattes? Watchdog Live carried out an investigation to find out.

Pixie Lott talks about plastic cup recycling
Pixie Lott investigates what happens to single-use plastic coffee cups.

According to World Coffee Portal, in the UK we spend a whopping £395m a year on iced drinks. An estimated 6.4m summer iced drinks are sold in UK specialist coffee shops each week.

Singer Pixie Lott, who presents the investigation, says: “I love ice cold lattes on a hot summer’s day, and so do you, because we’ve drunk £395m worth, and that is a lot of plastic cups.

"So the question is, where do they all go, and do they get recycled?”

How can we recycle plastic cups?

When Pixie Lott bought a cold drink in a coffee shop she looked around the shop for where to put the cup. The coffee shops had paper cup recycling and general waste bins, but where did the plastic cups go?

Watchdog researchers visited 10 branches of each chain in different towns and cities in England. They bought an iced drink and asked the staff in the chains what to do with the plastic cup.

Pixie Lott adds “When I’m at home, I do all I can to recycle, but when I’m out and about, and I buy an iced drink or I go to a coffee shop. What am I meant to do?”

Plastic coffee cups
Plastic cups are for iced drinks such as smoothies and frappe lattes.

Five things we learned

1. Coffee shops don't have separate plastic recycling bins

All three chains (Starbucks, Costa and Cafe Nero) confirmed none of their coffee shops offers separate recycling bins where customers can put their plastic cups. This is because some recycle in the kitchen or staff areas.

2. Plastic recycling is not always an option

Two out of 10 Starbucks told the team they couldn't recycle plastic. Starbucks has told Watchdog that just over half of its 900+ UK stores, plastic cups put into the paper cup recycling bin will be separated.

Four out of 10 Caffè Nero stores visited by Watchdog said they couldn’t recycle plastic - though Caffe Nero has told Watchdog that plastic cups put into the general waste bin will be separated for recycling unless contamination from food waste makes this impossible. And Costa was the worst culprit with seven out of 10 stores visited saying they could not recycle the plastic cups.

3. The cups are made of recyclable material

Plastic cups are made from out of a plastic called 'PET' 'Polyethylene Tetra hydrate' and 'PET' is very recyclable. It’s the same plastic used for water bottles so it can be melted down, shredded, washed and made back into recyclable products.

4. Thousands of plastic cups go to landfill

On the hottest day of the year in July, Costa forecasted sales of 3750 iced drinks per hour. If the findings were repeated across the UK, then Costa is letting thousands of plastic cups go to landfill or incineration, when even their website says they can easily be recycled.

In a statement Costa said: "We are currently trialing plastic recycling in some stores, collecting plastic packaging, including cold cups, from customers and separating the material back of house. This allows us to ensure minimal contamination, a common problem in mixed recycling bins in stores."

5. If you don't bin it its more likely to be recycled

All three coffee chains told Watchdog that in some or all of their stores, staff recycle plastic that is left in store - so generally speaking, your plastic cup stands a better chance of being recycled if you leave it on the table, instead of putting it in the general waste.

Pixie Lott talks about recycling plastic coffee cups with two teenage girls.
In 2011 it was estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups were thrown away each year.

The European Parliament has voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the member states.

The EU hopes it will go into effect across the union by 2021.

But what about coffee cups?

Some of the biggest coffee sellers in the UK, including Costa and Starbucks, have said they have started recycling paper coffee cups, but that's only if customers dispose of their cups in store.

In 2011 it was estimated that 2.5 billion coffee cups were thrown away each year and that figure is probably even higher now.

Bruce Bratley, whose company, The First Mile, collects plastic from retailers said: “The shops have done a great job with the hot paper cup recycling scheme, so I think they could do more with the cold drink cups."

But everyone has to do their bit. Bruce added: “The difficulty is getting the message across for customers to put the right thing into the right bin.”

At the end of the programme presenter, Pixie Lott gave the stores a helping hand by delivering recycling bins to some branches.

Watch BBC One’s Watchdog Live every Thursday at 20:00 on TV, or on the BBC iPlayer.

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