Plastic recycling: Why are 99.75% of coffee cups not recycled?

It’s gradually becoming common knowledge that it’s not as easy to recycle your takeaway coffee cup as people may have thought.

It’s the mixture of paper and plastic in their inner lining – designed to make them both heat and leakproof – that causes difficulties.

There are currently only a small number of specialist plants in the UK able to process the disposable used cups, and as a result, the vast majority of them (more than 99.75%) don’t get recycled.

In 2011 it was estimated that 2.5 billion coffee cups were thrown away each year and that figure is likely to be higher now.

Some of the biggest sellers of coffee in the UK, including Costa and Starbucks, say they have started recycling coffee cups, but that’s only if customers dispose of their takeaway cups in store.

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    Ace UK, the representative body for beverage carton manufacturers, has 415 recycling points for coffee cups and other paper products across the UK. Cups deposited here will be taken to the company’s own specialist recycling plant.

    They are generally in places like car parks rather than on the street.

    Cups that are left on the kerb in household recycling or in a bin on a high street or railway station, however, will generally end up in landfill.

    Industry body the Paper Cup Alliance says the specialist plants that do have the technology already have the capacity to recycle all the cups we throw away – it’s the infrastructure to transport them there that’s currently lacking.

    A growing number of retailers and offices are buying compostable cups and one of the biggest providers in the UK is Vegware, which makes its products without any plastic so they biodegrade.

    It sells compostable cups to office canteens, schools, hospitals and independent coffee shops and its sales have increased by more than a third in the last two years.

    However, compostable cups have to be disposed of in food waste bins rather than in a normal recycling bin and this is an issue for both homeowners and managers of cafes or workplace canteens.

    Trewin Restorick, at environmental charity Hubbub, believes the right disposable method is not always clear to people and says: “Compostable sounds better, but it can actually make things worse if they are put in the wrong bin.”

    Because they are designed to break down, if they end up in with the plastic recycling they can contaminate it. The same is true if you put an ordinary takeaway coffee cup in the recycling.

    This costs councils money in sorting it and can even lead to the whole batch of recycled items being rejected.

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      Vegware says its products work best in an environment where the waste can be controlled, like a festival. In those kinds of environments people are likely to buy a drink onsite and throw it away onsite.

      The amount of waste that gets rejected for recycling by councils in England has been rising. That waste then ends up in landfills or being burnt.

      The proportion of recycling that gets rejected is still relatively small, though – less than 5%.

      If compostable cups end up in landfill, unlike plastics they will break down. But this misses the opportunity to harness the energy produced through composting for another use – as fertiliser or even to generate electricity.

      Reusable cups

      The three biggest coffee retailers in the UK – Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero – all provide incentives for customers to bring in their own reusable mug rather than using a disposable cup.

      Costa and Starbucks offer a 25p discount while Caffe Nero offers double stamps on its loyalty card, which it says is equal in value to 25p.

      Greggs and Pret a Manger – the biggest “food-focused” sellers of coffee according to retail consultancy Allegra Strategies – also have discount schemes. Pret is the most generous with a 50p discount for shunning single-use cups.

      Starbucks has offered a discount for customers in the UK using their own mugs since it opened in 1998, and says about 1.8% of all hot drinks sold are in reusable cups.

      The coffee shop chain is trialling a 5p “latte levy” charge on paper cups in 35 branches in London – a plan proposed on a national level by MPs and rejected by the government in March.

      The trial has been in operation for six weeks so it’s too soon to judge its success, but early indications are that it has increased sales of drinks in reusable cups compared with a discount alone.

      Costa Coffee says about 1% of hot drinks it sells are in reusable mugs and that has been consistent since the discount was introduced.

      The company doesn’t have data on reusable cup use from before the incentive scheme was introduced, so it’s difficult to say whether the discount itself is encouraging some people to use non-disposable cups.

      Caffe Nero don’t have figures on how many drinks are sold in reusable cups because they give extra loyalty card stamps as an incentive rather than discounting the drink itself.

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Reality Check: Was Facebook data’s value ‘literally nothing’?

There is a huge spectrum of opinion on the value of the Facebook data that Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan gave to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL.

Dr Kogan told a parliamentary committee: “Given what we know now, nothing, literally nothing – the idea that this data is accurate I would say is scientifically ridiculous.”

On the other hand, there have been suggestions this sort of data will allow computers to gain a profound understanding of people and their preferences.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Cambridge Analytica’s spokesman said the company had also found Dr Kogan’s data set to be “virtually useless”.

The orthodox view among data scientists is that the use of social media data to target adverts on Facebook is in its infancy and not yet hugely effective – but Dr Kogan is going further than that, saying that it was completely without value.

Reality Check has seen Dr Kogan’s unpublished research into the value of predicted personalities for micro-targeting. We judge that he is underselling its value although he is correct to say that the data was not accurate.

Personality test

Let’s go back to where the data came from and what it included.

Dr Kogan had a personality testing app on Facebook, on which users would answer questions about themselves and be given scores on how they rated on the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, which are used by research psychologists and advertisers.

Dr Kogan says about 270,000 users took this test. Taking the test also gave the app data on all the users’ friends, which created a database of 30 million people and their predicted personality scores, according to Dr Kogan. Facebook puts the figure at up to 87 million.

These personality predictions are based on the idea that, for example, if it turned out that people who liked particular brands of sports cars and nightclubs had also turned out to be extraverts, then you might predict that other people who liked those things would also be extraverts.

You can see a similar sort of system on the website of the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge, which attempts to predict your personality test result based on your social media activity.

Inaccurate predictions

Dr Kogan’s research was funded by SCL, the research and communications company that formed Cambridge Analytica. Dr Kogan passed the data, including some of the pages that users had liked, to SCL.

Dr Kogan now says that the data he gave to SCL was useless for targeting adverts on Facebook because individual predictions were too inaccurate.

But some data scientists argue that the overall quality of the personality predictions is not the most important measure.

Part of the point of targeted advertising is to reduce costs by trying to appeal to only a relatively small number of users.

So you might be more interested in people turning up at the extremes of particular personality measures rather than those coming up as being close to average, because they are the ones most likely to exhibit the traits you are targeting.

As such, the overall reliability of the data may be less important than finding groups who may be targeted.

Also, Dr Kogan argues that trying to assess the personality of an individual gives too large a margin of error so the predictions are reliable only if you’re taking averages across larger groups. But looking at larger groups may be helpful during an election, when you might be trying to decide where to buy advertising on local radio or where to hold an election rally, for example.

So Dr Kogan is underselling the value of his dataset. While not all of it would have been useful, parts of it could have been helpful.

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Reality Check: Is UK the drugs capital of Europe?

There have been 52 murders in the capital so far this year – and MP David Lammy says the drugs trade is driving a rise in violence.

“We are the drugs market of Europe,” Mr Lammy told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The Tottenham MP added that the UK’s drugs market was worth £11bn, and London was at its centre.

This figure comes from the National Crime Agency, which says that drug trafficking to the UK costs an estimated £10.7 billion per year.

This actually refers to the cost to the public purse of illegal drug use – in treating people in the NHS, the costs to the courts of dealing with offences, thefts by drug users and so on – rather than the worth of the market.

The Home Office has estimated the illegal drugs market to be worth £5.3bn.

Like any illegal activity, finding reliable data can be tricky, but piecing together the evidence certainly suggests the UK does have a significant drugs market.

Almost one in 10 adults said they’d used an illegal drug in the last year, which gives a sense of the scale.

In 2014, the Office for National Statistics said illegal drugs added £4.4bn to the UK economy.

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    In England and Wales, a confidential household survey asks people whether they have used an illegal drug in the last year.

    Respondents fill in the survey themselves – the idea is to reassure people the survey is confidential in order to make the responses more reliable.

    A fictional drug is included in the survey to try to weed out people being untruthful in their responses.

    The latest figures show around 8.5% adults aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales took an illegal drug in the year 2016-17. This is much lower than ten years ago.

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      In Scotland, the latest figures for 2014-15 found 6% of adults said they had used one or more illegal drug in the last year.

      Of 25 European countries that submitted data last year, the UK had the seventh highest proportion of its residents saying they had taken an illegal drug in the last year, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

      It had the highest proportion of cocaine users, however, and the third for ecstasy.

      But we don’t just have to rely on whether people say they are taking drugs or not.

      Analysis of sewage highlights London’s place as one of Europe’s leading users of illegal drugs.

      By measuring traces of drugs in sewage systems, the Sewage Analysis CORe Group Europe (SCORE) has been able to measure drug-taking habits in more than 50 European cities.

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        In 2016, when London last participated, the city came second only to Antwerp in cocaine usage – although it does vary year on year. Barcelona, Zurich and Amsterdam also have relatively high drug use.

        In the three years before, London was number one, and still comes out on top for cocaine use on weekdays.

        However, variations might also be linked to differences in purity as well as quantity of usage.

        For example, drug purity on average in Belgium is 78% compared with 44% in UK, which could partly explain how Antwerp topped the charts for how much cocaine was found in their pipes.

        And not every country has submitted data for every drug each year. In the years when London has participated in measurements of ecstasy, it has appeared in the top five.

        In the EU, the retail market for illegal drugs is estimated to be worth at least 24 billion euros (£18 billion).

        The biggest market is for cannabis, followed by heroin then cocaine.

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Made in Britain: What does it mean for trade after Brexit?

Rules of Origin sounds like it should be a cult video game.

But it is actually an important concept in international trade that will have a big impact on the Brexit negotiations, as they begin to focus on the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

It’s all about how you define where products really come from and what Made in Britain really means.

At issue is the kind of economic and trade agreement that will replace the UK’s current membership of the European Union.

What do we know so far about what that agreement could look like?

Well, we know Theresa May’s government is committed to leaving the single market and the customs union.

And we also know that, given the red lines the UK has established, the EU is saying that the best it can offer is a free trade agreement, along the lines of the EU-Canada deal (known as Ceta) which came into force last year.

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    The UK wants something more ambitious, but leaving the customs union has a big impact on rules of origin.

    The big advantage of being in the customs union is that there are no tariffs (taxes on imports or exports) charged on goods traded between its member states.

    The disadvantage, from a UK perspective, is that you lose the ability to negotiate your own trade deals with other countries around the world.

    Can’t you have the best of both worlds?

    Well, you can get rid of most tariffs in a free trade agreement, and still retain the ability to negotiate your own trade deals. But unfortunately it’s not that simple.

    This is where rules of origin complicate the picture.

    To comply with rules of origin requirements, companies that make things need to tell customs authorities where all the component parts come from.

    To put it another way, they need to prove the “economic nationality” of their products. That means working out the total value, and where that value was added along the way.

    Why do they need to do that?

    The idea is to prevent abuse of the system, by making sure that products can’t enjoy preferential or zero tariffs as part of a free trade deal after being manufactured mostly on the cheap elsewhere.

    At the moment, because the UK is in the EU customs union, any value added to a UK product anywhere in Europe is considered local, and vice versa. Once the UK leaves, that will no longer be the case automatically.

    And that makes supply chains important. Some products have much more complex supply chains than others, so rules of origin requirements will affect some industries more than others.

    So which sectors are likely to have a problem?

    For some sectors it’s not an issue at all because they are exempt.

    But chemicals, various kinds of machines, and cars are all potentially vulnerable.

    For example, rules of origin in trade deals usually require around 55% of the components of cars to be considered local.

    But – according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders – the average car manufactured in the UK currently has only about 44% UK content at best, because so many parts cross borders several times before the finished product emerges.

    And once you take account of the fact that many of the sub-contractors down the supply chain also source many of their parts from abroad, the SMMT estimates that that figure for cars made in the UK could be as low as 25%. A huge challenge.

    Are there any solutions?

    Yes, there are ways to reduce the risk to business. Free trade deals often include measures that allow both parties to consider value added in the other jurisdiction as local – and it seems safe to assume that a future EU-UK trade deal would do just that.

    But a report published this month by the Food and Drink Federation said everyday food products manufactured in the UK, such as chocolate bars and frozen pizza, could fail to meet some rules of origin requirements anyway if a free trade deal similar to Ceta was negotiated between the EU and the UK.

    That’s because the food industry relies on ingredients that are sourced from across the globe.

    So this is not just about the EU market?

    No, it’s not. Many supply chains are global.

    And it’s also worth bearing in mind that rules of origin will have an impact on the UK’s efforts to replicate its current EU trade agreements with other countries around the world, or to sign new ones.

    UK manufacturers with products that are made in both the UK and the EU may well find it difficult to meet rules of origin requirements with these other countries.

    Again, deals can be done to broaden the definition of what “local” origin means. But if the UK wants a broader definition, other countries could demand the same in return.

    Either way, there could well be an extra burden on businesses.

    So what are the costs?

    There are significant costs, administrative and legal, for businesses that have to prove the origin of goods.

    In some cases, that could even mean that it’s cheaper just to pay a low tariff than to go through the bureaucracy involved in getting an exemption.

    “There are steps that can be taken to mitigate the costs,” says Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform. “But outside the customs union you cannot eliminate those extra costs entirely.”

    It sounds complicated…

    Yes, and there are other layers of complexity that we haven’t got into here. But you could well begin to hear a lot more about rules of origin once talks on the future relationship between the UK and the EU get under way.

    The task for EU and UK negotiators is to come up with a new agreement that limits the disruption to supply chains as much as possible. But it will not be frictionless trade.

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