The sweet and sour taste of coffee

Ahead of Hugh’s War on Waste on BBC 1 tomorrow (Thursday July 28), Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management, talks about food on the go and recycling coffee cups

For a brief period in the early 1980s I attended a boarding school – I didn’t like it. Of the many misdemeanours that would result in me giving up my weekend to wash trees or some other equally pointless activity, a rule about ‘eating in the street’ comes to mind. It must have been one of the ones I fell foul of.

These days, you cannot walk five yards in London without someone slurping a smoothie or guzzling a gaucho chicken wrap.

It’s no different at work either. Granted, these days you are less likely to drop unfashionable egg mayonnaise into your keyboard – my skills have evolved and I now use a special toothpick to extract errant edamame beans from the ctrl keys.

There’s no doubt that both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ we manage our food and drink ‘on the move’ has changed dramatically.

Over the last 30 years, it seems as if we have gone from punishment to encouragement. Millions of people slurping and munching, and then tossing the remains into whatever receptacle comes to hand – or not.

It is undoubtedly a global problem and the topic even has its own Europe-America divide.

For example, when drinks manufacturers compared UK consumption to the US, they were vexed about why we drank so much less. It took them a few years to figure out that it was because our fridges were so small and the big bottles they supplied took up too much space.

In response they began a fridge building programme on an epic scale and today, it is almost inconceivable that you would enter a service station or newsagent without a wall devoted to cold drinks. Just don’t try returning an empty fizzy drink bottle to a newsagent though – you will be met with some very strange looks.

It works in both directions, I read once that the reason a certain European car did not sell in America was because it lacked a decent sized coffee cup holder.

Which leads me neatly on to the topic which has got me all stirred up – coffee cups and the big recycling debate.

I love my coffee but I’m never going to be someone who puts one of those strange syrups into a perfectly good cup of caffeine – and don’t get me started on your lattes, cappuccinos and cortados.

Equally, I don’t yearn for a return to the old days with the chink of china cups and hushed conversation in Tolworth Tea Rooms.

When the drinking is done, like many people, I get a kick from crinkling my coffee cup and lobbing it with a Murray-type smash into the nearest recycling bin, satisfied with the taste and the thought the ‘paper’ cup will reappear in due course as someone’s T-shirt or flip-flop. OK, that might be a stretch too far, but stranger things have happened.

The trouble is, as a certain Mr Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is telling us, pretty much none of these cups ever get recycled.

Estimates show that some seven million ‘paper’ cups are thrown away in the UK each day, and because many of us drink our coffee ‘on the go’ they are usually disposed of in street mixed recycling bins or even taken to work and recycled there.

Unfortunately, as our friendly campaigner tells us, these cups cannot be recycled through normal public waste collection services, and instead require specialist facilities. It is thought less than ¼ of one percent are actually sent for recycling.

That’s not exactly an environmentally-friendly approach and, given it is the council taxpayer who pays for public recycling, you can guess who ends up footing the bill on disposal.

Moves are afoot within the industry to introduce changes which will increase the sustainable recovery and recycling rates of used paper cups and these must be welcomed.

In addition, the recent launch of a new cup, made with a plastic film which is lightly bonded to the recycled paper shell which can in turn be separated and recycled, is another step forward – it will be interesting to see who decides to adopt this approach.

In the meantime however and until we find a truly successful solution, while our coffee may be sweet (two sugars please), all these unwanted coffee cups are leaving behind a rather sour taste.