Concerning Recycled Hot Beverage Cups: The Good, The Bad, The Potential

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Though recycling of office paper, pop cans, and other materials is now quite common, disposable coffee cups are another story. With millions of cups used each year, very few coffee shops have actually recycled hot beverage cups that they sell. Though made of paper, these cups pose interesting and particular environmental challenges for recycling and composting.

At Issue: Can Paper Coffee Cups Be Recycled and Composted?

In most places, hot beverage cups cannot be recycled, and are not compostable, even though they’re made mostly of plain paper pulp. (Read to the next section to learn why)

Starbucks, one of the leading buyers (and sellers) of paper coffee cups, has come under strong fire for this fact. However, there is some hope that the cups, though not recyclable through traditional paper streams, may be processed through the same recycling channels that handle corrugated cardboard.

To explore these possibilities, in late 2009 and early 2010, Starbucks cooperated with the Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR, part of Global Green USA). They operated a study to address two elements of paper cup recycling: how well the cups are broken down in the cardboard recycling process, and how responsive and willing consumers are to sort their cups in the appropriate container.

This study may present hope that paper cup recycling will become more mainstream in the future.

Why Aren’t Hot Beverage Cups Recyclable?

The reason we use paper cups in the first place is that they are more hygienic than old-fashioned “shared” glass cups in hospitals, trains, and other public spaces. To keep the liquid from soaking through the paper, cups are sealed with a thin layer of water-resistant material: first clay, then wax, and now a very thin coat of plastic (polyethylene, or PE, to be specific).

However, the PE coating, found on hot beverage cups just like cold beverage cups, makes it difficult for these cups to be processed along with paper, even though the bulk of their material is plain paper pulp, which is recycled daily in the form of paper and cardboard.

Can I Buy Eco-Friendly Paper Cups?

Yes. While you’ll be hard-pressed to find full, hot beverage cups made completely of post-consumer recycled paper (FDA sanitation rules cap post-consumer content at 10%), work is being done to source cup paper sustainably and eliminate that eco-unfriendly polyethylene coating.

International Paper and Green Mountain Coffee debuted the “ecotainer” line of hot cups, cold cups, food containers, and lids in 2007. The cup paper is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, coating and lids are made from U.S.-grown plant-based materials, and manufacturing is powered in part by renewable energy. These are recyclable in some residential streams, most commercial streams, and are certified biodegradable.


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