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Our reverse-vending project across London campuses shows impressive results for coffee cup recycling

Sustainable Lattes

Bywaters, working with some of our high-profile university clients, has helped to recycle almost 2,500 coffee cups across London campuses in the last two months.

This early success comes as a result of our Coffee Cup Recycling Scheme, which we started to roll out early this year in conjunction with our partners the London School of Economics, Queen Mary University London, and the University of Westminster.

The scheme, made possible by funds awarded by The Cup Fund, allowed us to purchase and provide a range of services and innovations to university students and staff, including:

  • State-of-the-art reverse vending machines
  • Bespoke coffee cup shaped recycling bins for each site
  • Specialised branded recyclable coffee cups
  • Discounts on hot drinks for those recycling their cups
  • Prize competitions featuring sustainable alternatives to coffee cups and gift vouchers

Implementing Innovative Solutions

The project has been fully implemented across the LSE and University of Westminster campuses, with rollout delayed on the Queen Mary University campus due to coronavirus. Nevertheless, the results have been impressive, proving the effectiveness of the concept – almost 2,500 coffee cups collected in such a short time is an impressive result.

Full implementation of the reverse vending machine systems involved changing cleaning operations on these campuses, and made a number of follow-up consultations and suggestions to streamline processes further. Now, through commitment and buy-in from the onsite teams at both universities we are seeing the number of coffee cups collected rising with every collection. From staff to students, the enthusiasm and uptake that has been shown across these campuses is heartening, and shows that people are still willing to change their behaviours in order to live more sustainably.

Currently the University of Westminster is showing the most impressive numbers, collecting thirty-one full bags of coffee cups in the last couple of months, but LSE’s figures are quickly improving too, with the addition of Queen Mary University to the project sure to only further boost the number of coffee cups rescued from general waste.

Engagement and Education

Embedding new recycling practices isn’t as simple as developing the technology – a lot of work and effort needs to go into changing people’s behaviours before these new techniques will take off. That’s why we invested in media, literature and custom branding, in addition to the reverse vending machines, so that we could engage with students and incentivise them to actually give these new habits a try. These elements were the ones that pushed the project over the edge into success, according to Katherine Bojczuk, the University of Westminster’s Sustainability Manager:

“The Cup Fund has been a huge success at the University of Westminster. We have tried cup recycling programmes before, but have only managed to get very limited engagement. Working with Bywaters and The Cup Fund has meant a more visual campaign, a better approach and more involvement from our students and colleagues. The reverse vending machine has been a particular success and has helped us collect over 800 cups for recycling in only a few months.”

The Coffee Cup Problem

This is all necessary because recycling coffee cups is notoriously difficult. In order for the paper cups to be strong enough to hold hot liquid they are often lined with a thin plastic, meaning they cannot be recycled along with conventional paper products. To be properly recycled, most coffee cups have to be sent to specialist mills that can separate the paper and plastic components – and to do this, they need to be collected separately.

As recently as 2018, 99.75% of coffee cups in the UK were not being recycled – meaning around 2.5 billion coffee cups were being thrown away with general waste each year. The point of The Cup Fund is to change attitudes to coffee cup recycling, and we’re delighted to have been awarded the chance to help them in this mission.

The reverse vending machines on each site also provide benefits, such as allowing students to receive a discount on their next hot drink when they recycle their coffee cup, or entering them into prize draws to win items such as reusable KeepCups. These machines accept all coffee cups, including the new sustainable cups we are providing in partnership with Frugalpac across all the campuses.

Full of Beans

It’s early days in the project, but we are extremely pleased with the results. By ensuring that these cups are properly recycled, we are able to reduce the amount of waste sent for incineration and make a vital part of so many people’s days – their morning coffee – a more sustainable activity. Bywaters would like to thank the London School of Economics and the University of Westminster for their commitment to the project so far, and we look forward to further improvements, especially after implementation at Queen Mary University is completed. We are proud to work with these institutions towards a sustainable future.


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