From Discarded Coffee Cups To Designer Decking

WRAP Cymru has worked collaboratively with Nextek and Ecodek to find a way to remanufacture used coffee cups to produce strong polymer composites.

500 t
Est. annual reduction in carbon
emissions (tonnes CO2 eq)

800,000
Est. number of people
who benefit directly

Our story

by Costa Athanatos, Business Account and Project Delivery Manager, WRAP Cymru.

The debate over single-use coffee cups has been raging for some time, involving governments, coffee chains, fast-food brands, and environmental organisations around the world.

The United Kingdom alone uses more than 2.5 billion single use coffee cups a year with 500,000 thrown away daily in the UK.

Worryingly, fewer than one in 400 are recycled because although they are made of paper, they are also lined with plastic to make them waterproof – and once used, they are contaminated with drink too.

It’s these complexities which means the cups can only be recycled at a very limited number of specialist recycling plants in Europe.

WRAP Cymru has brought together Nextek, sustainability specialists who have focused on paper plastic composites, and the UK’s leading composite decking manufacturer, Ecodek, 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 – shows how such composites can be turned into a totally waterproof building material, which can use up to 200 cups per square metre.

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, which 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.

We believe this could be a game-changer, leading to the re-use of a huge number of the world’s single use plastic cups by turning them into environmentally friendly building material for everyday products, harvested from our urban waste. To the best of our knowledge, this is a unique project in decking and most likely a world first in extruded composite decking.

Our advice

It is vital that those at a management level accept and encourage change. There can at times be a reluctance to embrace new processes and technologies, particularly if the attitude is “if it’s not broke why fix it?” prevails. This can be due to perceived financial implications but it’s important to highlight the enormous benefits, such as reducing CO2 emissions as well as reducing waste going to our oceans. When taking into account all costs involved this needs to include the planet, as well as the organisation.

There can be a perception that an item made out of recycled materials should be cheaper than one that isn’t. This is not always true as the process these materials have to go through have a direct impact on price. It’s important that people appreciate the bigger picture in this respect. We know there are pricing sensitivities but what we have found during the pandemic, for instance, is that people are really keen to shore up their supply chains and very often this can mean looking more locally for their suppliers. COVID-19 has taught us all that there are no guarantees in getting things from the other side of the world in times of crisis, and yet business still must continue.

Having like-minded partners who share your vision is also really important. Good communication is key here too with people educated and trained up to understand exactly what they are doing and why.

Lastly, managing problems with perception. People can be uncertain of change and this sort of mindset can result in a perception of barriers and challenges that don’t actually exist. It’s really important to make sure those you are working with are open minded. If people don’t understand, there are plenty of organisations out there that can help – but of course, you’ve got to ask for that help.

Our metrics

  • When we commissioned the trials, we stipulated that the products that were being trialed with recycled content had to already be commercially available ones, not looking to develop new products which would then require marketing etc. So, the fact that this project successfully incorporated the recycled content from the coffee cups into picnic benches that are already in production and advertised on a manufacturer’s website, would be what we class as success.
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