/ 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?


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

Never said it was read my post – Poland.

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

None taken malcolm.