When identifying the key issues surrounding existing recycling processes we identified that effectively separating the PLA or PET coating from the paper cup is virtually impossible. Commercial pulp recycling facilities are not incentivised to separate this single-use item back into it’s the two materials. Not only is it difficult, the value of the remaining materials is extremely low as the paper is ‘contaminated’ with plastic meaning that it cannot be effectively recycled into paper and other paper pulp products. Paper pulp manufacturers are not incentivised to recycle paper cups, resulting in only 1 in every 400 cups being recycled or composted.
Incentivising the recycling of paper pulp that does not aim to remove the PLA coating, but rather use the ‘contaminated’ material to create a secondary product that has financial, social and environmental benefits. Through rigorous research and a series of prototypes, it became evident that the inclusion of the plastic composite serves as an effective aggregate that both binds and strengthens the material when compressed and molded.
The commercially used PLA single-use fibre cups are so robust, in order to pass international health and safety regulations, that they can only be composted at commercial composting facilities. Commercial facilities take an average of 180 days to compost the cups where as if you were to throw it on the ground, it would take an average of 50 years to fully break down.
Coffee shops and fast food chains, purchase existing recyclable single-use fibre cups as usual. The customer then purchases the product and disposes of it into demarcated bins provided within the coffee shops. Alternatively customers can throw their used cups into the standard recycle bins around the city. Recycling facilities then collect the used cups from designated stores like Starbucks and McDonalds, and deliver them to existing sorting facilities.
CupCrete allows the lid and cup to be ground up together to form a concrete aggregate, meaning that there needs to be no separation or sorting of cup materials. This aspect benefits the sorting facilities as well as the consumer by simplifying a complex and often confusing world of what can and can’t be recycled/composted. Not only can the lid and cup be ground up together but PLA and PET cups can all be mixed in together to form a stronger aggregate.
The pulp is then dried and sold to CupCrete manufacturers. Manufacturers mix the paper pulp with cement to create CupCrete. Manufacturers then compress the ‘CupCrete’ mix into standard brick molds, commonly used for low-cost housing.
The final ‘CupCrete’ bricks are then sold to low-cost housing developers in South Africa and abroad for affordable housing solutions as well as sold to independent distributors such as hardware stores and local distributors in townships. These are then sold directly to consumers living in shacks and informal dwellings. Alternatively CupCrete Mix and cement can be sold as a premix for customers to mold on site.
Through the creation of CupCrete bricks, we hope to provide an eco-friendly and affordable housing material to aid the housing crisis currently being experienced in South Africa. By adding value to the waste cups and lids, we would be creating an opportunity for informal pickers to earn extra income by incentivising them to remove cups and lids from the waste system.