Why businesses need to stop prioritising recycling

Thursday 1st February

By Safia Qureshi

Safia Qureshi is founder and CEO of Cupclub, a reusable packaging service for food and beverage. Cupclub helps retailers reduce single-use plastic packaging by up to 40% through trackable products and an in-built loyalty scheme. Follow them on Twitter @cup_club

There’s one group of people that don’t need to watch Blue Planet to know the effect our plastic addiction is having on our oceans. Sailors.

I’m just back from speaking at the Volvo Ocean Summit in Hong Kong in front of an audience made up of business owners, sustainability managers and seafaring folk. It was the perfect vantage point to survey both the damage that plastic bottles, cups, cutlery, and food packaging are wreaking on our environment but also, more encouragingly, the signs of progress that is being made.

China will play a growing role in how we deal with plastic. The UK found that out quite abruptly this summer when the global superpower announced it would not be recycling 24 kinds of solid waste, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) drinks bottles and mixed paper. Since 2012, The Guardian reported, British companies have shipped more than 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong. That is a shocking two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports.

Plastic bottle tops

We should not be exporting our waste. Not only is there a global footprint incurred as we ship waste across the world but outsourcing waste management leaves the industry open to criminality. The Chief Executive of the Environment Agency (EA) told the Guardian in 2016: “Waste is the new narcotics”. This shows no sign of changing: in the UK, the Environment Agency discovered over 850 new illegal waste sites. In China, we have even less control over how and by whom our plastic gets recycled. This should worry anyone who cares about the environment.

To cope with the pressure, the UK is going to have to up its recycling game. In their report which went viral with the #LatteLevy proposal, the Environmental Audit Committee revealed that there are currently only three recycling facilities in the UK which have the ability to recycle coffee cups. I realise you’ve probably heard all the staggering statistics by now, but they don’t cease to shock: we litter 500,000 cups a day.

But just as the export of waste outsources the problem, the focus on improving our recycling facilities only offers a temporary solution. For some, recycling will soon be a lucrative industry which encourages waste. Recycling also uses up resources. Many products, when they are recycled, are downcycled and made into lower quality products. The global consumption rate of material resource is x1.6 the rate at which they are currently put back. Put simply, on August 2, 2017, five months before the end of the year, we used more resources from nature than our planet could renew in the whole year.

Cup Club cups

Cupclub, a reusable coffee cup system, I founded was just awarded the New Plastics Innovation Prize from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. MacArthur is a champion of the circular economy – this means keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting as much value as possible from them, then recycling them as sustainably as possible. Fellow prize winners included seaweed-based packaging pioneers Evoware and MIWA, which is an app that allows shoppers to order exact quantities of groceries, which are then delivered in reusable packaging. Aside from fellow EMF winners, I am also a huge fan of the Finnish startup RePack which delivers online shopping in reusable packaging made out of recycled material. They charge a small deposit, and report a 95% return rate. These are great innovations which don’t try and change consumer behaviour drastically but rather fit into people’s lives and nudge them towards a more sustainable way of consuming.

Businesses and startups focusing on recycling are missing the bigger picture. Businesses which value sustainability should concentrate on prioritising reuse. Reuse supply-chain models consume fewer material resources, less energy, less time and labour compared to recycling models. The Cupclub model shows that reuse systems make sense financially. The Royal College of Art in London ran the Cupclub pilot scheme in their three cafes for nine weeks. Nearly half of cups used were Cupclub and there was a four per cent increase in sales. People appreciated a quality product that made their coffee taste better and we reduced single-use plastic in their supply chain by 50 per cent. We’re currently talking to companies, business centres and institutions including universities and NGOs about implementing Cupclub and helping them eliminate single-use plastic from their supply chain.

Reuse, then recycle.

Find out more about Cupclub: www.cupclub.com

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