Here’s my hot take on what to do about all the single-use, polycoated paper coffee cup trash that lavishly illustrates my last post on the Roll up the Rim contest.
Rather than telling B.C. residents that existing polycoat paper cups are difficult or impossible to recycle—something my research indicates is not true—much more should be done to educate B.C. residents that polycoat paper cups can be recycled in their municipal recycling system.
And, of course, more should continue to be done to encourage less waste and greater recyclability of single-use food packaging.
But most importantly, I believe that the government of British Columbia should follow the best practices developed in B.C. over the last 40-plus years and use provincial legislation to create a so-called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program.
This one should be made up of the fast food and coffee chains—such as McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, Wendy’s, Burger King, Starbucks, Blenz, Waves—that are responsible for vending the vast majority of the single-use paper cups (both hot and cold) in B.C.
B.C. should then tell this group to clean up the mess that their paper cups have made!
Make (paper cup) polluters pay like we have in the past
Everyone in B.C. is familiar with the province-wide Return-It recycling depot system. This is an EPR descended from the first one created by the provincial government in 1970, which saw the creation of a returnable beverage container system—self-financed out of the deposits collected at the time of sale and operated by the pop bottlers and supermarkets (among other retail members).
The EPR approach to recycling consumer goods is built on the simple principle that the polluter pays—that companies should be responsible for recycling what they are responsible for creating.
Today in B.C., at least 18 industry-based EPRs operate deposit-based, self-financing programs, which help British Columbians recycle used oil, alcoholic and non alcoholic beverage containers, batteries, light bulbs, paint, almost anything that runs on electricity, thermostats, mobile devices and tires.
The system works best where there are Return-It recycling depots large enough to act as one-stop drop-off points for many of the other EPRs. Few of B.C.’s Return-It depot take only bottles. Depot operators earn a small fee for what they accept on behalf of other EPRs, so most also accept batteries, paint, and electronics, as space allows.
The logic of creating a provincially-mandated ERP to run a deposit-financed paper cup system is obvious—given the scale of paper cup waste and the success of the Encorp Pacific ERP (which operates the Return-It system).
In 2017, B.C. kept an estimated one billion beverage containers out the landfill. The provincial return rate on beverage containers hovers between 75 and 85 percent. This is substantially higher than the 72 percent Canadian average claimed by the Canadian Beverage Association (which would be that much lower without B.C.’s rate).
The U.S. beverage container recycling rate is 33 and 70 percent, for states without container deposit systems and states with, respectively.
Putting a provincewide deposit (say a nickel) on paper cups that be redeemed through the Return-It Depot system would simply make paper cup garbage disappear, as if by magic. (although really, it would be by binners and Dumpster divers).
The only thing that isn’t so obvious to me is why a provincial paper cup deposit system wasn’t instituted many years ago, although the obvious reticence of the B.C. Liberal government to impose regulations on big business offers a clue.
Alternately, a paper cup ERP could follow the practice of the many non-beverage container ERPs and choose to finance itself with a smaller, nonreturnable recycling fee (say three cents).
By itself the ERP could collect paper cups by:
- separating and encouraging in-store disposal of paper products in a standardized way across all ERP member stores;
- encouraging B.C. residents to bring paper cups to Return-It depots without offering them a deposit, as with plastic milk jugs;
- and nstalling distinctive, high-visibility paper cup bins in selected high-traffic areas.
However, the return rate would be fractional compared to what the free, motivated workforce of the province’s binners could dig up.
A possible case in point is the trial paper cup collection program carried out in 2015-16, in the city of Manchester, England, by an environmental nonprofit group called Hubbub, with funding from eight of the city’s major coffee cup retailers.
The program, called #1MoreShot, ran four months, from October 2016 to February 2017.
For the first six weeks a single collection bin was installed on a high-traffic street. This bin attracted plenty of public and media attention but not plenty of paper cups. Organizers had to modify the bin to make it easier to put cups in and harder to vandalize.
For the rest of the trial, 10 more bins were added, some on the street and some on the Manchester Metropolitan University campus. Key findings (quoted largely verbatim from the Hubbub report which was emailed directly to me) were:
- Street bins are effective at attracting attention and raising awareness that an initiative is taking place.
- Street bins do not collect high volumes of cups and are far more prone to contamination (20 percent) than those bins located in more managed locations such as the University campus (12 percent contamination).
- When all bins were removed from the street and transferred to managed locations (e.g. University campus, hospital cafes) usage of the bins doubled.
- Contamination of the bins was significantly reduced if they were placed next to a general waste bin.
- Indoor locations proved preferable to outdoor locations, even in managed environments.
- Clear, simple messaging alongside the bin and at the point where the drink is consumed was effective at encouraging use and reducing contamination.
By the end of January 31, 2016, the Manchester trial had collected 21,000 paper cups, demonstrating, as far as Hubbub was concerned, that the public is willing to recycle their cups if facilities are provided.
As this works out to less than 200 cups per day, it could also have been taken to suggest that such bins alone cannot solve the problem of paper cup waste, any more than the on-street Return-It blue bins. These have been peppered throughout Vancouver since 2013 and are doing much to add to the return rate of beverage containers.
If, as Encorp Pacific says, 90 percent of returned beverage containers are brought directly to Return-It depots, then its sidewalk blue bin can only be collecting some portion of the remaining 10 percent. In fact, all I every see them collecting on West Broadway is garbage and graffiti tags.
B.C. needs to harness the power of binners
Compared to the 21,000 paper cups that the #OneMoreShot campaign took four months to collect in 2016-17, consider the results of the Vancouver Binner’s Project annual Coffee Cup Revolution one afternoon in October of 2017.
In three hours, 120 binners brought in 53,783 coffee cups. At five cents a cup, they received a payout of $3,652.75
It should be said that, according to Hubbub, phase one of its second paper cup collecting initiative, called #SquareMileChallenge, which took place in London, England, beginning in spring of 2017 and which leveraged all of Hubbub’s Manchester experience, collected a whopping half a million cups in just the month of April!
But, extrapolating the 2017 Coffee Cup Revolution numbers over a month of 30 days shows that, in the same amount of time, Vancouver binners would collect well over 1.6 million paper cups. So yeah, binners still win.
I don’t know yet if Hubbub’s #SquareMileChallenge made its end-of-2017 target to collect five million paper cups but if so, the experience and expertise gathered in the process could be invaluable to other cities, such as Vancouver.
Even Hubbub’s Manchester trial indicates that the cup bins, which were cleverly made to look like squat takeaway cups, were valuable conversation starters and earned the project enormous media attention.
If nothing else, a small, strategically located number of similarly eye-catching bins—in combination with a deposit system that pays people for collecting and bringing in paper cups—could have a beneficial impact by helping raise and maintain public awareness.
Even absent of any other additional paper cup recycling initiatives, I think that the City of Vancouver should bang out three our four similarly photogenic, paper cup return bins and stick them near the highest concentrations of office workers and fast food and coffee shops downtown—just to generate some buzz.
Arguably, the lack of any real effort on the part of the City of Vancouver to raise public awareness about the existing options for recycling paper cups has helped ensure that our used paper cups runneth over the streets and sidewalks and everywhere else they don’t belong.