Following is an extract from our latest ebook, Office Waste: A Guide for our Future, created as part of the Greening Your Office series in collaboration with CitySwitch.

Contamination is one of the major hurdles for achieving good outcomes from office waste management. It only takes one renegade coffee cup in the comingled bin or one slice of pizza dropped in the paper bin to result in an entire load of recyclables going to landfill.

This raises costs for the building manager, owner or tenant. For instance, two recycling plants in Sydney put up gate fees by 20 per cent in July 2015, due to the amount of contaminated loads they were having to send to landfill.

Materials recovery facilities are also generally not licensed to accept food waste, which is defined as putrescible waste. This is a due diligence concern for owners or managers and for companies engaged in CSG reporting, as it might mean they are dramatically overestimating the percentage of waste not going to landfill.

GPT’s national manager for energy performance, Steve Ford, says this is what he discovered when he started looking at outcomes.

Coffee cups – bane of the office

Analysis by CitySwitch and audits by Foresight Environmental have found that up to 10 per cent of the contents of an office bin consists of takeaway coffee cups.

Mention the cups to anyone in the sustainability consulting arena, and you’ll hear different versions of the theme: “They are the bane of the office.”

Their convenience meets the race-to-work, race-to-lunch work style, as well as a whole lot of misunderstanding over whether or not they are recyclable.

There are so many types: “biocups”, which some might think should go in with the organics for composting; plastic ones that look like they should go in with the comingled; and paper ones with an inner film of plastic that look like they should go in with the paper.

But, put your coffee cups in any of those bins and chances are the whole load will be considered contaminated and sent to landfill.

Technically paper coffee cups are recyclable, but to separate the liner from the paper shell (which is high quality paper) the cups need to be soaked for longer. So, when coffee cups are part of a mixed paper waste stream the whole process must be slowed down, and this challenges the economics of the pulping process because it reduces the number of runs that can be performed each day. So, understandably, paper recyclers prefer not to accept coffee cups and they end up in landfill.

This year CitySwitch undertook a design thinking workshop with a range of stakeholders to explore how the environmental impact of disposable cups could be reduced. The results highlighted a range of strategies, to reduce their use; encourage keep cups or good old ceramic mugs and provide money off offers for coffee shops; and improve recovery after use by demonstrating that they can be collected separately and turned into a new product.

CitySwitch is now looking to run trials with leading building owners to establish whether a good stream of coffee cups can be acquired for downstream reprocessing.

Brendan Lee of Simply Cups, a UK partnership between Closed Loop and Simply Waste, says, “We can overcome the recycling problem by providing a homogenous supply of coffee cups. While the pulping process still takes longer, it provides the opportunity for a pulping operation to do separate ‘runs’ for coffee-cup only waste streams and, say, office-paper waste streams. These separate waste streams, each produce a different reprocessed-paper product that is suitable for different uses – but both attract a price for the reprocessed product.”

Simply Cups has been growing steadily with partners now including the largest UK coffee chain, Costas, the department store giant John Lewis and, more recently, McDonald’s, together with dozens of small, medium and large businesses. The Simply Cups model has been running in the UK since 2014 and has already recycled more than 10 million cups.