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From coffee cup to luxury packaging

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UK manufacturer James Cropper is the first company in the world to turn waste coffee cups into luxury packaging materials. Paul Sanderson found out more


In the UK, an estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups go to landfill every year because it has not been possible to recycle them.

This summer, the Queen opened the £5 million reclaimed fibre plant at James Cropper in Cumbria which takes coffee cups, removes the plastic coating and leaves a high quality paper fibre that can be used to manufacture packaging for luxury products.

“The thing about coffee cups is that they have very, very high quality fibre content,” says James Cropper process improvement manager Matthew Miller. “As a speciality high quality paper making business, this fibre is of interest to us.”

James Cropper coffee cup wasteIndeed, James Cropper makes packaging for mobile phone boxes, luxury perfume brands, whisky companies, the paper used for Remembrance Day poppies and other speciality papers.

Disposable coffee cups from the major coffee chains are made of typically 90 to 95 per cent paper and the remainder is a thin coating of polyethylene.

After four years of development, James Cropper is able to recycle the fibre content, but also remove the plastic as a useable produce.

“Removing the plastic content is challenging,” says Matthew Miller. “But we worked out a process to extract the fibre and we have started this with post-industrial waste from the cup manufacturers.

“Post-consumer collection is not currently all that easy due to the lack of infrastructure to get the cups to us. This is because most of these cups are used away from the place where they were bought, so in offices and in public, rather than in the coffee shops.

“If they were in the coffee shops, then collection of them would be easier. But where the coffee is consumed means trying to find a way to collect the cups in relatively small volumes.”

With the post-industrial waste there are still sufficient volumes for the James Cropper facility to process.

This includes reject cups, some from testing as well as waste materials. The coffee cup has a punched out circle for the base as well as a half moon that forms the rest of the cup leaving behind waste manufacturing material that still contains the plastic coating.

The process involves a series of separation stages where the material is pulped and then goes through various processes to filter the plastic from the pulp.

“We are left with the high quality fibre and we are able to remove over 95 per cent of this. This leaves us with the plastic that can be used as a fuel as well as a deinking sludge (to remove the fibre that has been contaminated with ink) that can be used for animal bedding.”

Although it has always been possible to recycle the post-industrial coffee cups, typically this was exported to Asia where it was turned into low-grade products.

“Our process means that this material is recycled here in the UK rather than shipped around the world for use as a lower grade material.”

Although the focus is currently on post-industrial material, this does not mean James Cropper is ruling out coffee cups that have been used by the consumer.

“We have run large scale trials on post-consumer materials and we are still working out the logistics and the transport costs of getting them to us.

“Waste management companies may have a large part to play in this and we would be happy to talk to them if they are able to provide this material to us. We would rather recycle the post-consumer material if we could as this is where the biggest environmental gains are, as there isn’t currently a recycling route for them unlike the post-industrial.

“We have the capacity in hand to recycle more of the post-consumer coffee cups and while it will take time to build up our post-consumer content, we are confident it will happen eventually.”

James Cropper recycling plantOne of the issues from post-consumer material, which won’t be a surprise to recyclers of any material, is contamination.

But it may not be from the source you might think. While the coffee and milk is easy to wash off the cups because of the plastic coating, it is low quality paper that will be the biggest contaminant.

“It is relatively easy to clean the cups. But if there is greyboard or unbleached kraft then that is a problem. The card cup holders for example are made of low quality paper and this will downgrade the fibre content.

“When you are manufacturing for luxury brands, you have to give them the same high quality as before. While sustainability is very important to our customers, they want it to happen with the same quality in the product as the virgin material.

“So recycled content must meet their specification and so we will need to ensure the post-consumer material meets the expectations of our customers.”

Surely it would be easier for James Cropper to use virgin material to get the required quality for its customers?

“Sustainability is very important for us,” adds Matthew Miller. “Papermaking should be a sustainable business. This industry had a bad reputation in the past for polluting with chemicals and pulp, but it has changed this.

“James Cropper is on the edge of the Lake District National Park so we are careful to make sure our water usage and waste does not impact on it, and we also work very hard to reduce our energy use.”

Category: Manufacturing
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