Article archive 2017: What am I supposed to do with this cup?

We get through 5,000 disposable paper coffee cups a minute, but very few of them are ever recycled. Why?

A fraction of the 5,000 cups per minute that we consume in the UK.

The quote on the side of our meeting room coffee jug says it all. Coffee first. Schemes later. I don’t think our studio is unique in its love for coffee. I imagine that coffee serves as one of our industry’s primary fuels. Many a late night is sustained by shots of espresso, making sure we hit that deadline. The question is, at what cost?

Cups after collection and baling (many of the waste cups are pre-consumer waste e.g. printing rejects).

In the early years of the Thomas.Matthews studio we did a quick count of cups of coffee consumed in a day. I am particularly keen on the substance and am often avoided by fellow workers until I have had my first sip. However, even I was surprised by the sheer quantity. I averaged out at seven cups a day. Four of these were bought from the local café, equating to £9 a day, £45 a week – £2,025 a year spent on coffee. An expensive habit of which I am not alone. Britons spent £7.9bn in coffee shops in 2015, it’s a growing market. In 1999 it was thought that the coffee market was at saturation, but it has grown sevenfold and is set on path that could see it double over the next decade.

Cups are shredded and ready for the separation of the paper from the polythene liner.

“Britain is becoming a nation of coffee connoisseurs. The thirst and the desire to have better quality coffee is growing (thank god, there is nothing worse than a bad, weak, coffee) ((Jeffrey Young, MD of the Allegra Group))” So, it is confirmed – coffee is big business. Alongside the operations of supplying coffee to the masses is the fact that in the UK, unlike Italy, we love to drink on the run, and a hot beverage needs a specific container to transport it in.

The disposable coffee cup has seen a lot of press recently, and well it should have. The UK produces 5 billion paper cups a year and throws away a staggering 7 million of these disposable coffee cups every single day (that’s 5000 a minute). However, less than 1% of this waste stream makes it to the recycling plant, even though the main material – over 70% – is high quality virgin paper. The clue to the problem is in the misleading name; disposable. This object suffers from the same identity issue as a lot of packaging; once it has fulfilled its job of keeping food fresh or cold, hot or clean, delivered to your door or desk, it then loses its value, and in-fact takes on a negative value, being annoying to get rid of. What do I do with this sticky, smelly thing now? Where are the bins? Which bin should it go in?

But we are wrong to think there is no value in a used cup once the coffee has been drunk. The engineering behind the take-away cup is pretty extraordinary. There are two curves to deal when creating the cup shape. This demands a lot from the cellulose of the paper that a recycled stock with shorter fibres could probably not cope with. You need a virgin material for it not to fail, prompting claims that it takes at least 100,000 trees a year to fuel Britain’s coffee habit. Then, you have the bonded polythene layer inside to make it waterproof. This bond is so strong that it is very hard to pull apart the two materials. And so, the recoverability becomes economically unviable for the majority of recycling facilities to do it.

Laminate packaging that has been separated for reprocessing. The polymer and aluminium is currently not recycled.

With 5,000 a minute streaming through our lives, and most of us having general confusion as to what bin they should go in, cups end up in every bin everywhere. And who owns the problem? We do not have Individual Producer Responsibility for cups. Once they are empty of coffee and become waste they is our problem to dispose of. We often put them in the recycling bin, hoping they will get recovered but only 1% does. They are either incinerated where we recover their calorific value in energy from waste plants, or they are buried in landfill where they give off methane whilst they slowly degrade. There is a little research on how long it actually takes for a disposable cup to break down in the environment on its own. The quality of the paper could see it take at least two years to start decomposing with the polythene taking up to 30 years.

Paper and polymer mixed pulp

So what can be done? For me, design will be the key, not just in the cup design, but in systems and materials spec too. Solutions are surfacing. In business, consortiums like Simply Cups have been working on building a strong collaborative cohort of companies that brings together every part of the supply chain and beyond; retail to producer, user to collector, paper mill to reprocessor , waste manager and collection service provider. What comes out from the collected cups that are sorted, baled, shredded, separated and cleaned is a high quality paper pulp suitable for luxury packaging and card which is high in value.

Shredded paper and pulp still has value.

The interesting thing about this model is the scope there is to expand out, both in R&D and new business models. Companies are now working with them; like the coffee roasters who close the loop by offering a complete service of bean delivery and spent ground collection (that they use to fuel their roasting machines, which roast your beans for your next order). Simply Cups have also been building partnerships looking at designing out the polythene layer altogether in order to create a cup that any recycler will want to collect because they can easily reprocess it.

More obviously there are designers and businesses who have replaced the disposable cup altogether. Keep Cups are one of these barista size cups. They have pretty much the same thermal properties as a paper cup (ie. Good for 10 minutes) which is long enough for me, and are durable and reusable with added feel good factor.

Processed and usable paper pulp

What about levies and tax options? A few years back, Simply Cups mentioned that if we could add 5p onto the price of every coffee drunk from a disposable cup we would be able to fund recycling for every single cup thrown away in the UK. Last year the Liberal Democrats motioned a paper in parliament that proposed such a tax, to follow on from the success seen with carrier bags. This kind of model not only builds funds, it actively discourages the use of disposable stuff. (In July 2016 the government estimated the charge would result in six billion fewer plastic bags being used during the year and £29m had been raised).

What is pretty obvious to me is that with this sheer amount of packaging waste, with its complex material bill of materials, must be designed to factor in the end-of -life. Our current technical/marketing brief should stop thinking of the materials as having no value after they have fulfilled their original use (if it even considers it at all) and start to demand design for 2nd, 3rdand 4thlife. The fact that we can recycle paper fibres around six times in order to extract the maximum value (the same as plastic) shows us the potential and untapped value we are giving up too early just because we have designed something that does not consider the whole life. And to me that is just not good design anymore.

Thomas.Matthews business cards printed on ‘Coffee’ paper (mocha). The cups were collected by Simply Cups, reprocessed and made back into paperboy James Cropper’s Reclaimed Fibre Facility based in Cumbria, UK

This article first appeared in Creative Review, Issue 3, volume 37. March 2017
Photography by Peter Clarkson

 

 

Article archive 2017: Circular By Design

Reflecting on the quest for material infinity, and the massive changes and opportunities the circular economy offers to designers.

Look around you. Wherever you are there will be something that has been designed: beautiful things, functional things, frivolous things. What you can’t see is that behind all these things are intricate supply chains that criss-cross the globe, manufacturing sectors employing millions of people, complex processing systems assembling countless ingredients sourced from many continents.

When I became a designer I quickly discovered a stark truth: I was partly responsible for a rapid flow of materials and stuff that passes through our lives, and all too soon ends up on a waste pile. This realisation led me to investigate where many products end their lives. For the last ten years I have questioned our current state of take, make, then throw away. I have gone on shifts collecting household rubbish and dismantled computers, coats, high heel shoes, cars and even an oil rig.

Textiles featured in my investigation. A recent visit to a textile recycling facility revealed the magnitude of the problem. I saw piles of old clothing being dumped onto conveyors taking fabric to sorters to evaluate their worth. Bales stacked as tall as houses: men’s pleated trousers, sought after in Sub Saharan Africa; patterned jumpers esteemed in cold Eastern European climates; and worn-out t-shirts to be cut up for industrial wipes. Mixed up in this stream were other textiles: duvets, curtains and blankets, that have no secondary market, destined for an environmentally unsound end in landfill.

Witnessing this scene is dispiriting. It seems impossible to imagine how we, as designers, can change this. But change it we must. And design is a good place to start. Around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at concept stage. Let’s rewind to when these products were just a scribble in an entrepreneur’s notebook. Let’s go back to the brief: ‘Design a kettle that can boil two cups of water in less than twenty seconds that retails at £12.99’, or, ‘Design an office that makes our company look youthful and innovative’. But imagine if the brief also instructed: ‘Design this product to have a second and third life’, ‘Design it so its raw materials may be fully recovered to their maximum value or so that no part of it will end up in landfill during the first five years of its life’. How would this affect the way we designed the product?

All too often, when designers consider materials or production methods, we jump to the finished product too quickly; we fail to consider its wider impact or future use. This new brief would present a big challenge. The very premise would need to change, to address a future where one product could easily become another. This would mean radically re-thinking everything: from the materials we specify, the product itself, its packaging, the logistics to retrieve it after use, and then to sort, process and make it into something usable again.

‘It seems impossible to imagine how we, as designers, can change this. But change it we must. And design is a good place to start.’

In a nutshell, this is the circular economy. It is an exciting proposition, letting the material flow drive the design and production method. It conceives of the product built from these materials as a ‘temporary state’; in other words, a product is always potentially on its way to being something else. Once redundant in one incarnation, it must be capable of being easily disassembled to go back to the raw material again and again, not in a degraded or down-cycled state, but in its most valuable form. Designing for a circular economy allows you to design for the optimal and longest life of a product; for re-use and fixability, recyclability or disassembly and recovery. It makes you match the potential lifespan of your product to appropriate materials and processes.

In the past, design has flirted with different methodologies and theories of sustainability, green design, eco-design, biomimicry, cradle to cradle, light-weighting. Designing with circular economy principles is based on systems thinking; it means designing the whole system, not just the products.

So designers are just one element of a circular economy. Even if they design a product that can be easily disassembled at the end of its life, with our current waste infrastructure, there is still a very high chance it will end up on a waste mountain. Achieving material infinity requires change on the part of everyone involved in the life of a product, from the suppliers of raw materials to the manufacturer, retailer, consumer and end-of-life disposal and recycling companies.

The scale of our waste problem, one for which we are all, in part responsible, should make us throw up our hands in despair. My shock, however, has subsided into curiosity. Where most see threadbare sheets or fading curtains, old electronics or forgotten fashion, I now see the fuel for our renewal.

This article first appeared in the publication for the launch of ‘Really’ by Kvadrat, May 2017.
https://reallycph.dk/circularity/circular-by-design

Not on our beaches?

I often read stories of animals being affected by plastic debris in our oceans which are really depressing. Recently there was one that now makes me refuse plastic straws whenever I can. A group of marine biologists in Costa Rica discovered an endangered sea turtle with a 10-12 cm plastic straw lodged in its nostril. Christine Figgener, a field biologist with a research interest in conservation filmed the excrutiating 8 minute-long extraction operation, which left the poor turtle bleeding and clearly wincing in pain. Warning, it is really distressing to watch: promo-sea-turtle-straw copyhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw

An article in the telegraph references a recent study that estimated green sea turtles are 50 per cent more likely to ingest some form of plastic than they were thirty years ago. They often mistake items like plastic bags and straws for food, which can lead to blockages, infections and death.

This Easter when walking on a beautiful beach in Devon I came across this very sad sight of a dead juvenile black headed gull, strangled by a plastic top. It was so shocking that I ended up on BBC Devon News being interviewed about it and the issues around marine waste.

2015-03-31 14.10.48-1

We don’t really expect to see such sights on UK beaches, yes we hear about the terrible plight of albatrosses but not the gulls or terns. But no animal is safe from this increasing waste stream going into our seas.

 

Never Turn Your back on the Ocean

NTYBOTO_sm

I am having an exhibition and talk on the 18th November at Pentagram, Westbourne Grove. Places are limited so please do book: events@pentagram.com 

How do you communicate positively about our depressing environmental situation? Sophie Thomas, founder of Thomas.Matthews and Director of Circular Economy at the RSA is on a mission to do just that. 

In 2014, I travelled to Kamilo Point in Hawaii – also known as ‘Plastic Beach’ – to see first-hand the plastic plight of our oceans. Never Turn your Back on the Ocean is an exhibition inspired by this experience, featuring plastic sourced from Kamilo’s foot deep piles of junk.

Join of us on 18 November at 6.30pm and be the first to see the exhibition and hear me talk about my journey to Hawaii and its enduring affect on her work. 

Spaces are limit so please RSVP to events@pentagram.com to save a spot. 

With thanks to Pentagram, Do The Green Thing and Thomas.Matthews

Waste It Ain’t

Like last year I have had the great pleasure in producing a poster for WWF’s Earth Hour campaign with Do the Green Thing. I say great pleasure because I absolutely mean it. If you have had a design studio for as long as I have you will know that generally my days are filled with emails, meetings and document writing and that all the exciting stuff like designing is given to our (brilliant) design team. All this paperwork is important but ultimately not very creative and is not really why I went into design in the first place. So I jump at the chance to actually do something myself instead.

Last year I used my collection of plastic flotsam. This year I went messy. Having spent the last 18 months behind the doors of recycling and recovery facilities for my other job (Co-director of Design at the RSA and project director of The Great Recovery) I now find it very hard to throw things away. It’s kind of a magpie complex what others see as waste, I seem to see beauty, colour, opportunity.

The journey for this piece started with a conversation with Sion Whellens from Calverts, our friendly litho printers. It went: ‘do you throw ink away?’ ‘No.’ ‘What happens to it then?’ ‘When someone specifies a pantone colour on their piece of print we buy in enough ink to print with. Ink comes in 1kg tins and generally we don’t use it all up. A tin which is more than half full is marked up and put in (and on) our (overflowing) cupboard.

Image

After a few years, if no-one has specified that colour again it has probably passed its sell by date so we empty the ink into a big vat and it gets taken away and recycled into oil products but not into new ink.’

Image

This vat of ink is sticky smelly and gloopy but full of colours of the rainbow from past jobs – annual reports, comics, art books, posters, promotional leaflets…lovely. I pull some out and mark up the tin; ‘magic ink’ and take it back to the studio.

Image

Printing it was a challenge. The subject deemed it to be messy and gloopy so basic printing etiquette was out the window.Image

The effect I wanted was drippy

Image

but as soon as I pulled the ink down with a squeegee suddenly all the colours appeared, like a rainbow in the dark black clouds!Image

It took two weeks to get close to drying but the result is out now here. You can even buy one! The money goes to Do The Green Thing, a great cause and the poster was part of the WWF Earth Hour campaign.

I also helped judge and mentor the young creatives entries which was great fun. You can see all of these here as well as last years collection. I met someone last month who said they had mine on top of their 3D printer as it helped him stop printing when they didn’t need to – an interesting progression from ‘do you real need to print this out?’ footer on the bottom of emails!