/ Food & Drink

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?

John Symons says:
19 October 2011

Once it is clean and dry, it is not difficult to open up the cup along its seam, throw away the disc at the bottom (which has plastic on both sides), pull off the plastic film and recycle the paper


GBC sux at recycling. They only take plastic bottles so I have a bulging waste bin every week (shame they only take that every 2 weeks). The Govt should force companies to use better packaging materials and then force councils to recycle more. Maybe fine the Council leader directly for being such a slacker.

And before everyone says take it to the dump, why should I pay the council and then do it myself ? They won’t pay me. Should I run my own library ? Do the policing on the streets, light the the street lamps etc? NO


I keep wondering when we shall really know when the recession is starting to bite . . . When people wait until they can get somewhere and make a cheap cup of coffee in a cup or mug? When coffee shops and stalls start disappearing? Surely it won’t be long now and we can stop agonising over whether a disposable beaker should go in this bin or that one. Do the environment a real favour – sweep some dirt out of the gutter [you don’t usually have to go too far to find some], pop it in some used coffee cups, stick an acorn in each one, and see what happens. The wooden stirring stick will probably grow before the acorn but, never mind, it’s the thought that counts.


Saves a fortune on coffee…. bring my own thermos and no problem of waste whatsoever.

Mark Woodward says:
20 October 2011

Great article, and it is very important to keep asking the questions, there a number of organisations that collect paper cups for recycling, some are for energy from waste, but most are recyled into toilet rolls, hand towels, and copier paper. (currently they can not be used to make more paper cups) There is a lot of informationa about recycling paper cups at thepapercupcompany.co.uk/content_environmental_information.php

Dr S Danwell says:
7 August 2017

This was very informative to me. It is 2017 now and capitalism being in its fullest swing brought the news that Costa recycles paper cups. Digging deeper into this topic reveals that`s probably not true. What else is new?


Hello Mark

Yes we have heard of such recycling schemes but aren’t they mainly for businesses and offices? What about the consumer that wants to dispose of his/her cup on the street??

Mark Woodward says:
17 November 2011

Reply to Sylvias post
You are right, the recycling schemes in place for paper cups are for industry, collecting large quantities from office blocks, but this is changing, the paper carton industry is making huge strides in making paper carton recycling available to consumers, and the hope is, this scheme will accept paper cups, as they are made from the same material.
Keep a eye on thepapercupcompany.co.uk web site for the latest info on paper cup recycling

Mark Woodward says:
17 January 2012

Hi Sylvia, at the moment even recycling a can on the high street is almost impossible, and should be the 1st target for that environment. A company called WRAP http://www.wrap.org.uk/ are working with all the manufactures of packaging made from PE coated board like Tetra pack cold drink cartons, and paper cup manufactures to get the number of collection points for the general public increased. As I find out more on this i will publish it at http://thepapercupcompany.co.uk/blog/

Dorothy says:
16 November 2011

It’s not just paper cups. How does one find out what can be recycled. According to my German Daughter-in-law the ‘Grune punkt’ means that the manufacturer has paid to have this put in landfill. Can’t find that information in this country. Why do different councils take different things. Surely it can be recycled or it can not. And what do the triangles with different numbers in stand for? My council will only take specified items and not a lot of those.

Mark Woodward says:
17 November 2011

In Reply to Dorothys post, yes at the moment it is very confusing for consumers trying to find out what can and can not be recycled, it seems like every authority has different products they can recycle. This is due to cost of building recycling facilities, and the demand for the products that have been recycled, this varies from area to area, but is gradually changing across the country, so it is a good idea to keep in touch with your local authority.
We will continue to publish the latest information on recycling paper cups on our web site thepapercupcompany.co.uk with links to major sources of information.
On your question on the number in the triangle, this refers to the plastic that the product is made from , the idea being that it would make it easier for consumers to recycle them, but the councils do not seem to display these numbers.


Just about everything can be recycled – but not necessarily by your Council – and not necessarily by any other recycling contractor near you either. You do not have to depend on your Council for everything.

You need as Council Tax payer to make sure that they make good contracts and give residents good information on what can be recycled under these contracts. Good website information is available 24/7 for those who can access it, and they can obtain and download information for those that can’t. The Council then also needs to make sure that there is more information and publicity out there for those who don’t/can’t access the internet. If the information is unclear and not updated tell them and tell your local Councillors. This will benefit everyone. They work for you.

Margo Rochefort says:
24 November 2011

Recycling is a nightmare!!! I hate the hunting for my specs necessary to search the main part of the packaging to identify the symbol and then to plough through the info as to which part of the packaging is recyclable, which part MAY be recyclable depending on the local authority, and finally the part of the packaging which is definitely not recyclable.

It needs to be simplified. One way would be for the emphasis to shift from the consumer into a 50:50 set-up with the consumer and the manufacturer/supermarket. How about every single element of packaging having to incorporate the recycle/not recyclable symbol and for the symbol to be about the size of a 50p piece so for most of us the specs are not required.

Where councils don’t recycle certain plastics, maybe groups of councils should get together and ensure that one of them does recycle items which other councils do not – share the costs, share the profits.

Currently I have 3 bins and a black box, anymore separation of items into additional bins is going to cause my garden to look like a bin park. I appreciate the need for recycling but developers etc need to incorporate some kind of bin storage area within new housing schemes.

As usual, it seems that the idea/need to recycle started off well-intentioned. However it seems to have been diverted into some kind of political sound-bite which little regard for the practical implications to the householder. Switch the emphasis to make life easier for the householder and I’m confident that the level of recycling will increase to meet, perhaps exceed, the legal requirements.