/ Food & Drink, Sustainability

Where will your coffee cup end up? Not in the recycling

Collection of branded coffee cups

The UK’s thirst for coffee on the go means an estimated 2.5 billion paper cups are thrown away every year. If put side by side, they’d stretch around the globe roughly five and a half times, so what should we do with them?

Grabbing a takeway coffee is probably something we’ve all done, but once it’s guzzled, what do we do with the cup?

I was shocked to read the stats, and felt slightly guilty as I know a few of my cups have ended up in the rubbish when I’ve been out and about. What’s worse is I’m a ‘green’ rep here at Which? and I’m forever having to bin-raid our paper recycling to dig coffee cups out because they aren’t accepted.

The cup’s half empty when it comes to recycling

More than half of people we asked in a recent survey, who buy takeaway drinks, dispose of their paper cups in the general waste bin. And our survey highlighted that eight in 10 think they can dispose of cups in paper and cardboard recycling facilities.

But in fact, chuck a cup in with your newspapers and junk mail recycling and it’s likely to be rejected at the recycling plant and end up as rubbish anyway. So it’s probably no surprise that we’re all a bit confused.

It’s the mixed materials in the cups that make recycling them a headache. Disposable cups are mostly made of cardboard (about 95% by weight), but also contain about 5% polyethylene in the form of a thin coating inside the cup, stopping your cup from going soggy.

This is the same make-up as Tetra packs, so technically they could be recycled, however the recycling industry uses the excuse that coffee cups will ‘contaminate’ the recycling.

So, what should we do with our cups?

Buying a reusable cup or travel tumbler may be fine if you make a regular commute, but it’s not always a practical choice. And taking your time to sit in a coffee shop is a nice idea, but not always possible either.

The coffee chains we spoke to varied in their response to the problem. Starbucks, for example, is aiming for 100% of its cups to be recyclable or reusable by 2015, and customers who bring their own mug or tumbler get 25p off. But while some of their actions are heading in the right direction, other coffee chains think it’s enough to stick a logo on the cup and hope we’ll know what to do.

I think more clarification is needed on what mixed-material items can be recycled, and where. We’re sharing our cup findings with Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), but what do you think?

Can more be done to help reduce the waste caused by cups? Should they be recycled alongside cartons, since it should be technically possible as they are the same mix of materials? Are you now more inclined to reuse your cup, or buy a travel mug instead?

Should coffee chains follow Starbucks’ example and offer a discount if you bring in your own mug? Or maybe we should all just ditch our morning coffee?


Nothing to do with China. This was waste that was deliberately labelled as plastic when it was not. 3 firms are facing prosecution.

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Just saw “since China introduced a ban on -quote – “foreign garbage ” . No offence 🙂

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Can I recycle paper cups, like take away coffee cups? YES. Paper cups and paper take away coffee cups can be placed in your recycling bin. Please ensure no liquid remains in these cups. The plastic lids and plastic cups CAN be recycled. – from http://www.recycleforwestsussex.org/home-recycling/your-kerbside-collection/paper-and-cardboard/

Surely it would be better to not promote pods? Plenty of ways to make coffee that don’t need expensive capsules that just go to waste?

M – Paper cups are treated to make them waterproof making them more difficult to recycle and not all councils will accept plastic lids and cups for recycling. A better solution is to take your own reusable cup.

Hi M, This is a Convo from October 2011 so some of the information is out of date now.

Some places do indeed take cups to recycle now – I saw a dedicated cup recycling bin out in a shopping centre recently which was great to see.

Hi @malcolm-r Coffee pod machines are still a very popular item and we want people to be able make informed choices about what they buy. Our reviews of eco friendly coffee pods is a part of our move to making sustainability a bigger part of our reviews. Some of the ones we have reviewed are completely compostable and when I think about it are probably less wasteful than the esspresso blend I use at home that comes in two layers of plastic!

@abbysempleskipper, I’ve no problem with Which?giving people the information on which to make informed choices. Quite the opposite. However, the manufacture of coffee pods uses resources, whether they are compostable or not, and leaves unnecessary packaging to dispose of compared to other forms of coffee maker.

I think Which? should be focusing on the reduction of packaging waste and the need to send stuff to recycling. We have had a number of Convos on packaging where it is recognised we produce far too much, and it could fairly easily be reduced. This is a good example, apart from the higher cost of making a cup of coffee.

My coffee cup usually ends up in the sink, where it gets washed up, to await re-use.

OK – I have consumed disposable cups, when out and about, but, if I have to pay at all, I’d sooner choose to pay for coffee that comes in a proper china cup. But, sooner or later, the day comes when we can’t hide from the things that we’ve done any more.

If, perhaps, disposable coffee cups were significantly expensive at the point of consumption, more folk would think twice about using them.

I agree, but the problem is that many employees claim expenses for coffee and food. At one time that would be obvious because they collected the receipt but now they are likely to pay on a company contactless card.

Maybe the answer is to get rid of the disposable cup option.

This is disposable packaging, a much wider problem that needs tackling particularly for food. I wonder, after the flurry of activity about plastics packaging, what Which? are doing.

We do investigate it. This was from last year but we will be looking at it again. https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/recycling/article/what-are-supermarkets-doing-about-plastic

@abbysempleskipper, Investigation using Convo contributors. But action?

@malcolm-r I will pass the suggestion to the campaigns team. There are many organisations out there with more experience in this field campaigning on it and it is certainly being taken much more seriously as an issue now then when I worked in waste education 10 years ago.

What we are doing focusing on is giving consumers to the information they need to make an informed choice.

@abbysempleskipper, thanks Abby for https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/recycling-disposable-coffee-cups-starbucks/#comment-1564348

Are Which? working with these “many organisations out there with more experience in this field” and collating and passing on the constructive comments made in Convos on packaging waste? If not, what was the point of the Convos 🙂 .

There are many organisations out there who specialise – on product sustainability for example. I would hope that Which? contributes directly to their work and brings back results and reports to its Members and Convo contributors. I know Which? works on (some) BSI committees but it never reports on what goes on that is not confidential. Fires in Domestic Electrical Appliances working groups for example?

We do indeed work with these other organisations to pass on comments and we proactively look for other organisations to do guest convos. If you have an organisation in mind you would like a guest convo on, let me know and we can approach them.

There is always so much going on that it is difficult to make the time to feed back. I would also say that if we fed back on everything we do it would be a full time job to keep up with it all!

“if we fed back on everything we do it would be a full time job to keep up with it all! . Forgive me, but I thought it was a full time job 🙁

What is the point in those who bother to contribute to Convos instigated by Which? doing so, often involving time, research, if we do not get feedback? Are Convos just for amusement or are they intended to fulfil a real purpose? If so, I believe Which? should play their full part.

Back to the weeding…. 🙂

@malcolm-r I should have made that clearer – it would be a full time job for anyone to keep up with it all!

*Comment edited to more clearly reflect meaning*

a full time job for you to keep up with it all!“. I’m not sure quite what this means. I’m prepared to look through relevant responses from Which? in the time available. I’d just like to see those responses to questions that we ask.

I think today’s Reply comments are misaligned throwing out the chronology of the Conversation.

I wonder where the supporting evidence is that ” many employees claim coffee and food on expenses and use a company credit card“. No receipt? Surely the monthly credit card statement shows transactions so receipts for contactless cards are unnecessary.

Allowable company expenses when I worked were limited, for example to subsistence allowances if away from the normal place of work, and entertaining clients. They did not include daily personal coffees and snacks. Perhaps things are different in other employment sectors?

I remember being in St Moritz with several employees from a company that funded my research. Two were arguing over who payed the bill for a few very expensive coffees and another one said that they were trying to see who could claim most expenses on the trip. I can think of other examples at home and abroad but that was the most extreme.

As Derek says, you might reject disposable cups if they cost more, but my point is that if someone else is paying the bill you might be more careful.

Presumably they were entertaining “clients”? I often wonder why such entertaining is done in far away expensive holiday resorts and exactly what the “clients” get out of it, apart from a nice break maybe paid for by someone else 🙂 . The costa coffee seems almost irrelevant 🙁

I didn’t work in the education sector but in manufacturing. Our conferences were generally held in university accommodation or UK cities. Fairly inexpensive and no air miles.

St Moritz is legendary for hosting ‘conferences’. Friends who are Dentists used to go every few months. Not sure they did anything particularly orthodontic, but they enjoyed the slopes…

This conference was in Davos (another popular venue for conference) in 1996 and the outing to St Moritz was on the day off. When conferences and meetings were in less exotic venues I sometimes stayed for a holiday at my own expense, but that would have been too expensive in Davos. One of my memories of Davos was the total absence of litter – no disposable cups blowing around the streets.

Malcolm – I very much agree with you about conferences being held in exotic locations. When I hosted meetings for small numbers of industrial and academic collaborators, costs were kept to a minimum, leaving more money for research. Some of the materials we were studying could have bee used to make biodegradable cups.

In the UK, there are relatively strict income tax rules about employees’ travel and subsistence, but “customer entertainment” tends to come from marketing and sales budgets.

In my experience, there are wide variations between different organisations as to how generous (or otherwise) expenses provisions might be and also quite wide variations between employees as to the extent that they will use or abuse those provisions.

The absurdly expensive coffee in St Moritz was courtesy of a US company, though I have been well wined and dined by some British companies. In my experience, where council, NGO and European money is involved you are lucky to get more than a cup of coffee, but at least it comes in a proper cup. I thought I had found an exception but discovered that our host was providing the fancy biscuits out of his own pocket.

If you are running courses, meetings or conferences for your client base, there is a lot to be said for making sure that any refreshments provided are up to scratch.

On some of my courses, I have sometimes provided the initial “meet & greet” refreshments at my own (quite modest) expense, because I want everyone to be starting out in a good frame of mind.

When I host liaison meetings on behalf of a charity, I provide the refreshments at my own expense. Sometimes others do but you can’t have a meeting without coffee and biscuits. The meetings are essentially about protection of the natural and built environment and disposable cups are never a feature.

Malcolm wrote: “I wonder where the supporting evidence is that ” many employees claim coffee and food on expenses and use a company credit card“.”

From Wikipedia: “Business credit cards are specialized credit cards issued in the name of a registered business, and typically they can only be used for business purposes. Their use has grown in recent decades. In 1998, for instance, 37% of small businesses reported using a business credit card; by 2009, this number had grown to 64%.”

When having a coffee or a meal with a company employee, they have paid (often by card) on the basis that they said they could reclaim the expense.

This discussion has nothing to do with the Convo topic, other than involving the word “coffee”.

It’s not entirely unrelated since disposable cups often feature in meetings, large and small. I have frequently visited an organisation that has a drinks machine outside the meeting rooms and everyone could help themselves to coffee etc. ad libitum. Thankfully the disposable cups were replaced with a stack of proper cups a couple of years ago. Whereas most people would take a new disposable cup each time, I’ve noticed that most will refill a proper cup.

I was referring to the company credit card diversion. 🙂

As this is straying off topic, I’ll briefly comment that I’d agree with ”some employees claim coffee and food on expenses and use a company credit card“ but not with the use of “many” because I think the vast majority of company employees claiming T&S do not have such cards.

Maybe we should move on and discuss the number of disposable cups used to dispense water, coffee and other drinks. These are well used, particularly if free.

I’m wary about drinking fountains and hygiene, but if they are safe that would save a lot of waste.

Abby Semple Skipper says: Today 12:36

I should have made that clearer – it would be a full time job for you to keep up with it all!

I wonder if you’re aware of the ever-so-slightly patronising air lent by that statement, Abby?

Surprisingly, there are some of us adept at speed reading and comprehension, analysing patterns, making deductions and even – dare I say – formulating potential strategies.

Many of us are not only extremely capable of absorbing and assessing significant tracts of information, but also of mentally organising and internalising it in such a way as to inform our future perceptions and awareness.

Several of us went to Universities considered to be among the best in the world, and several of us hold advanced, Post-grad degrees. We’re not idiots and when we ask questions or make offers to help it’s never done lightly. We know our limits and we know our abilities. And we would appreciate Which? resisting the trend, so popular in the BBC, to treat the members, customers or contributors as somewhat lacking in intellect.

Abby – This article makes the useful distinction between coffee pods that are home compostable and those that are industrially compostable: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/04/which-coffee-pod-brands-are-the-most-eco-friendly/ That’s a key issue when developing biodegradable plastics. It’s early days for the new products but it would be interesting to know which applies for the two brands that have developed compostable pods. I wonder if you would be able to find out, please.

As mentioned in the article, there are some manufacturers’ schemes to return aluminium and plastic pods for recycling. Clearly Which? has reservations about these products and it seems very likely they will end up in the bin for non-recyclables.

How many people compost at home? Even if we include those with gardens.

These days many people do not have that luxury, and don’t need compost. We need to focus on unnecessary waste, not how to deal with increasing amounts of it, in my humble opinion.

Your wish is my command! The full details of if they can be composted at home or need to be industrially composted are in the capsule reviews. https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/nespresso-compatible-capsules/article/best-nespresso-compatible-coffee-pods

I used to be a volunteer drop off point for Terracycle so know a fair bit about their scheme but you have to be pretty dedicated to recycling for them to go that way rather than in the bin.

What’s the solution then, Malcolm? Do we ban the production of coffee pod machines? They produce good coffee, are very convenient and are much quicker to use than a pressure machine. Some may be happy with filter machines and cafetieres, but they don’t produce as good coffee. I have suggested refillable pods and these do exist but apparently they are not very good.

Assuming that coffee pods will continue to be produced for the foreseeable future, I welcome the introduction of compostable ones and hope that they will be home compostable.

I have never used coffee pods, both for environmental reasons and that they are expensive.

I think this can be summed up as it is not easy knowing what is green. For example an organic compostable pod in a cardboard box will have a smaller environmental impact than non organic coffee packaged in plastic.

There are often surprises when the impact is calculated. I was reading about research about those delivered meal kits that are becoming popular. For a lot of people those will actually have a smaller impact than buying from a supermarket. https://news.umich.edu/those-home-delivered-meal-kits-are-greener-than-you-thought-new-study-concludes/

Thanks for the links Abby. I see that half the pods are home compostable and half require industrial compostable. I hope that all will become home compostable in future. Even if they go in the brown bin (or whatever colour your local council has chosen for garden and food waste) home compostable plastics are easier to process.

It would be great to have a Convo on the many ways of reducing our environmental impact.

Not to spoil the surprise but I have one coming up on reducing the impact of clothes. It is something we are looking to do more of in the future as well.

@wavechange, I am not able to give a solution. Packaging waste is a huge problem that we must tackle at some point, and that includes coffee pods. I’d rather encourage people to use, for example, home espresso machines than use expensive and over-packaged coffee in pods but we cannot prevent that.

Which? could, however, take a stance in considering packaging, its effect on resources to produce it and its impact on the environment when we dispose of it when publicising products and accessories.

I would question whether goods described as “compostable” are ever disposed of in a way that leads to compost.But why add yet more litter to the huge amount we produce and need to reduce?

No need to summon me Malcolm. I read all your posts. In fact I read all the posts by our ‘regulars’. I fully support reduction of packaging but would like to see Which? reviews asking us to look at alternatives to buying new goods, such as repair or simply carrying on using products that are still working fine.

Meanwhile, back on coffee pods, what is wrong with ones that can be refilled and stored for use when you want a coffee in a hurry and don’t have time to mess around. If they don’t work well, what could be done to improve them.

I still use my ancient Rowenta filter coffee maker with a gold filter, which dispenses with the need for filters. The filter is as good as the day it was made but the plastic body of the machine looks more tatty every day. If I want decent coffee I use a pressure machine, but that’s slow and messy.

I’ll come back to your question about whether compostable coffee pods are composted with some other examples of green products that might not be as good as they claim.

No need to summon me Malcolm. I read all your posts.“. I don’t understand this. I was replying to your question “What’s the solution then, Malcolm? “.

A reusable coffee pod would be fine. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Reusable-Nespresso-Pods-Refillable-OriginalLine/dp/B00WOWZ74Q Some seem a bit (!) overpriced.

There are more reusable coffee pods than last time I checked, and you can choose stainless steel or plastic. Maybe Which? will do a comparison of the more affordable options, assuming that they do a decent job.

Lorna says:
26 June 2020

Could they use all the plastic to make polyester for clothes instead of using oil?