What's the Deal with Coffee Cup Recycling?
Author: Brad Gray
Note: This story was amended on 7 February 2019 to reflect Planet Ark's endorsement of the RecycleMe collection system.
Coffee cups. Recyclable or not? Well unfortunately it’s not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer at the moment. So why does the confusion exist and what is the best way to dispose of your disposable cups?
Whether coffee cups are recyclable or not is one of the most controversial questions in the recycling industry at the moment. The cups are made by covering cardboard with a thin layer of plastic to make it waterproof. The cups are pretty much the same material as milk and juice cartons which are accepted in recycling almost everywhere.
How the cardboard and plastic behave in the recycling process – particularly during pulping - is the source of all the controversy. If the cardboard fibres remain attached to the plastic they can’t be turned back into paper products and therefore become a waste product.
That's one reason why Planet Ark endorses Detpak's RecycleMe system, an end-to-end coffee cup recycling system that employs cups with a lining designed to be easily removed during the recycling process. It's important to note that the cups can only be recycled via in-store/workplace collection stations managed by Detpak and their collection partner Shred-X, the cups may not be recycled if placed in kerbside recycling.
Some recycling processors consider disposable cups a contaminant and have teamed up with workplaces, particularly large businesses, and some councils to tell people to keep coffee cups out of the recycling. There has also been a fair bit of media, like the ABC’s War on Waste, and social media that says cups are not recyclable.
However, there have been reports by both industry groups and major recyclers which clearly state that coffee cups are recyclable in co-mingled and mixed paper bins. A September 2015 report on the recyclability of poly-coated (i.e. plastic coated) fibre prepared for the Australian Packaging Covenant said that (hot) coffee cups “were more likely to break down in the pulping process because of their material composition [as they have thin] polyethylene coatings, they are more susceptible to water ingress, more rapid breakdown and improved recovery of fibre.”
So as you can see there are confusing and conflicting messages. The industry is talking about these issues and will hopefully come to a consensus soon.
So, What To Do?
- At Work: Two of the general recycling rules are ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ and ‘follow the rules’. Both of which apply here. If your workplace says ‘no cups in the recycling’ it’s best to follow that rule. If the recycling contractor considers cups a contaminant they may levy fines on bins with cups in them.
You can also get in touch with Detpak to find out if the RecycleMe system is suitable for your workplace.
- At Home: If your council accepts milk and juice cartons their systems should be able to handle the odd coffee cup without any problem. If you have a single coffee on the way home from the bakery, for example, then it’s safe to say it can go in your home comingled recycling without much concern. And according to GreenChip, the developer of the PREP tool, the simple act of flattening paper cups mean they will move though the sorting station in the best way.
If you're a particularly conscientious recycler and have purchased a RecycleMe cup and taken it home, consider keeping it until you can make it back to a store with a RecycleMe collection system in place.
- Switch to Reusable: Best of all, ditch the disposable (and all this confusion) and switch to a reusable cup. A study in Canada found that, in terms of the energy used in manufacturing, re-usable cups break-even with paper cups fairly quickly. It takes just 15 uses for a glass cup to break even, it’s 17 for a plastic re-usable and 39 for ceramic. So the more often you use your re-usable the lower the overall impact.
Put a Lid on It
The lids are widely considered recyclable and can generally go in the plastic or comingled recycling bin. On that note, lids placed in Detpak's RecycleMe collection stations are recycled into products such as plastic picture frames.