/ 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?

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

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.

The triangles with the plastics number inside could easily be bigger.

Some sort of a deal appears to have been made with the plastics companies to stop using this. We knew about lobbying at Downing Street but now we’ve seen it on the telly. Perhaps that is what happened here?

Other information about how to dispose of packaging could also be bigger including the oxo-degradable plastic that WHICH magazine comes wrapped in. The writing on that is far far too small!


Excellent response. In usa I have just two bins. For household one trash, one recycled. The recycle does all sorting. Oy yes, news papers, magazines, corrugated are also seperately picked up.

Why aren’t these cups either manufactured to be suitable to be recycled with other paper/card OR included in the Tetra Pak/Italpak/UHTmilk/juice/soup/chopped tomato/custard etc carton collections? I understand that these carton manufacturers initially paid for the collection banks for their packaging and that now the Local Authorities have taken over. This is the card that has layers of polyethylene and or foil added to it to make it lightproof and waterproof. If it is takeaway then it needs to suit the domestic recycling. If you are staying there to drink then why not ask for a reusable mug and if taking away there is no reason why you should not take your own to be filled. Stop allowing these companies to drag their heels about making more environmentally sound solutions! Sandwich packets could be included here as well since they all seem to be card lined with plastic.

I have never come across so much unrecyclable packaging as I have had recently when forced to travel regularly while stressed to visit relatives in hospital.

I agree with the large recycling signs (some companies are already doing this) on packaging and think composite packaging needs to be revisited.

It isn’t really difficult. Just as there is a market for different products in different areas – so there is for the resources found in our waste. It is to do with markets. Everybody knows that the Local Council collects the household rubbish (many don’t realise they do much else). WE PAY for this in our Council Tax and pay more if our waste has to be landfilled rather than used as a resource. So check out your Local Council for what you can put in your kerbside collection and in your local collection banks and use the supermarket collection banks too. Remember that much packaging is created for stacking and advertising purposes not simply transport and safety. We didn’t ask for it. Leave it at the supermarket as they do in Germany… or better still AVOID IT in the first place.

If your Local Council’s website is not clear then tell them exactly that and make suggestions. That is even more likely to get them to do something!

Mark Woodward says:
17 January 2012

Hi Lessismore, you have raised many good questions, yes it is a shame that the PE coating needs to be put on the board, but not only does it make the board waterproof, it is also used to seal the container. All the paper and board is hand sorted, so the depot would not be happy finding mouldy cups in with the paper.
As you say, there are now new collection points being put in all the time specifically for paper food packaging waste http://www.wrap.org.uk/ is working with manufactures, recyclers and authorities to reduce the amount going to landfill.
The Paper Cup Company offered free origination to the 1st coffee shop, who advertised a paper cup reduction scheme on the paper cup, as yet no one has taken them up on the offer. i.e advertise on the cup, save the world, 1 cup at a time, use a reusable cup, and get a 10p discount off your drink.
Although there are health concerns over using customers mugs, as to whether they could contaminate the coffee machine.
Compostable packaging seems to sow the wrong message with consumers who think that it is ok to send compostable packaging to landfill, it is not, it will never rot down in a landfill site. Composting is only a little better than landfill, with the resulting compost being a very low grade product. We need to be recovering the fibres from paper products not sending them to composting or landfill. we are trying to make a paper cups a little more environmental by planting a fruit tree in Haiti for every 1,000 cups.

I’ve just now got around to reading your November 2011 article about this in the magazine after a stressful time visiting relatives in hospital and seeing too many service station and supermarket coffee cups and sandwich packs!

In response to your question whether people would really carry their used cups home to recycle them – in many cases – yes. Yes, because they have eaten and drunk their takeaway in the car – or finished their drink in the car – those enormous American sized cups of cola for example.

I note that it is mentioned that the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE-UK) told you that adding paper cups to its bring-back scheme would ‘contaminate’ its recycling waste stream. Do we really believe this? Surely it is much more a case of not wanting to pay for anybody else’s waste to be collected and recycled. Aren’t these companies big enough to come to an arrangement? They should be and shame on them if they are not.

Please also investigate sandwich packs and how some of them consider themselves to be recyclable as card despite the plastic window and others which definitely look as though they should be going with the Tetrapaks and other mixed fibre lined cartons above have nothing on them at all.

Just noticed a Sainsbury’s sandwich pack marked for recycling as “CARTON – CARD widely recycled”. (This is using the British onpack recycling system: http://www.onpackrecyclinglabel.org.uk )

It was good to see recently that Tetrapak recycling (rather than collection) is to return to the UK. For years the only mill was in Fife before it closed. The story was on Let’s Recycle but I’m reminded about it on this page on My Zero Waste. Perhaps there will be more kerbside collection (you can hope).


Mark Woodward says:
2 August 2012

Lessismore, many thanks for the link to the recycling web site, this lead me to http://www.recyclenow.com/, and thought this was a fantastic resource for people wanting to know what that they can recycle and where.
Have a issue as to why i cannot recycle my starbucks cups in the same facility as paper drinks cartons, but sure the industry will get it sorted out.

The trouble with Recycle Now is that it needs to be up to date. So everybody please check that your Council has the correct information up. It is a site with funding from WRAP and it is the Council who should be making sure it is up to date. Only some of them don’t/won’t. We pay their wages and they should be keeping us informed of what is included in the contracts they have made and expect us to participate in. If they want good recycling rates they need our participation and if they don’t seem interested then that is rather worrying considering the cost per tonne to landfill is set to increase each and every April.

Recycling rates go up when the contract is changed – not because it is a better contract – but because that is the first time in absolutely years that the whole borough is given a decent amount of information all at the same time AND bins for the collection. The sensible thing is to give out free recycling bins. I know one Council which has been giving out free black sacks and charging for recycling bins. That is hardly encouraging people to recycle is it?

Lessismore says:
12 June 2014

So nearly all the sandwich packs I have recently eaten sandwiches from are now marked as “Card – widely recycled”.

Can anyone tell us whether the paper recycling companies can now deal with all this plastic lining – or is it expected to be recycled by incineration which even when giving energy is not recycling in my book. Some of them have an awful lot of plastic on the inside which you can tear off and bin – but do we need to.

We still have neighbourhood recycling banks which don’t want window envelopes – whilst the kerbside collection is fine with them. Is the Council backward in getting the information out about a change/improvement here or haven’t we moved on?

Well said Lessismore. Even if there is no plastic lining, the card is likely to be contaminated by mayonnaise etc and not ideal for recycling. The only way we are going to move on is by avoiding false claims and standardising what can be put in recycling bins.

Ive just been told by Waitrose I cant use my keep cup on their coffee machines as its against its health and safety regulations. They even advised me to use a paper cup and pour it into my cup.

I have viewed the programme on TV regarding the recycling of paper cups and was extremely surprised to hear that paper cups are not normally recycled but thrown away.
All the advertising regarding the packaging has been a deliberate deception.
It is my opinion that they should be a statutory surcharge of 20% on the retail price of a cup of coffee if a non recyclable disposable cup is used.
I believe this should be campaign which will collect people’s petition so that the issue could be discussed in Parliament

The Waitrose cups have quite a thick cardboard outer which can be removed and recycled

I use the inner for various things
Storing waste batteries waiting to go to recycling

Putting messy waste in before it goes in the bin

🌱 seedlings

I’m looking for further 💡
Ideas ☀️

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I absolutely agree we need to do better with recycling everything we use, especially plastics. I am confused however by the quoted 2.5 billion cups per year thrown away in the UK. The UK population is currently 65.6 million people. The UK had 39.2 million visitors in 2017. (both numbers from google). Summing those gives us 104.8 million people per year. To throw away 2.5 billion cups in a year would mean that every man, woman, and child that sets foot in the UK throws away 23.9 coffee cups every single day. Every person, every day, 24 coffee cups thrown away. That does not seem possible.

My question is, where did the 2.5 billion cups per year number come from? I.e. what is the source of that number?

Oops. That’s 23.9 coffee cups per person per YEAR, not per day. Entirely reasonable. Gotta work on my maths…

If you eliminate children under 13, people who never drink coffee in a plastic cup, those who only have the occasional cup of coffee while ‘on the go’, and those who live in remote areas and have never been in a modern coffee shop in their life, the ‘coffee in a plastic beaker’ drinking population is not so great so the number of cups disposed of per person [according to the total numbers reported] is astonishingly high. It is the case, of course, that those who like to pick up a plastic mug of coffee tend to be habitual and frequent offenders against the environment but would probably argue that they have no alternative such is their dependency on the stimulation the drink provides. I am surprised that making up a flask of coffee before leaving home is perceived to be too much bother, but that’s austerity for you: it brings out the extravagance in people.

“If you eliminate children under 13, people who never drink coffee in a plastic cup, those who only have the occasional cup of coffee while ‘on the go’, and those who live…”

So funny to see that appear in the summaries. Sounds distinctly Mafioso…

🙂 🙂 I think you were supposed to read it in context, Ian.


I stand by any interpretation of my remarks! But, yes, the statistical context should have been made clear. Unlike a normal conversation which flows naturally, we have to pretend here that there is continuity whereas usually there isn’t.

It’s also a problem for those of us who know how to construct lengthy sentences and then forgetting that the Recent posts list only shows a certain number of words.

The original WebX forum only quoted five words, ISTR, but most forum software only shows the name of the poster, the date and the fact that it’s a new post. Much safer 🙂

I like the fulsome lead-ins shown in ‘Latest Comments’ as it helps me prioritise my reading. I admit that I am usually conscious of the word limit and either front-end load my serious comments to facilitate continuity of the Conversation or back-end load my attempts at humour to conceal the pitch or the punchline.

Without reading all these comments I’d suggest the solution is to either drink a coffee out of a pottery cup in the coffee house, or use a reusable mug if you wish to take away. If you do not have your own then buy one at the coffee house. Why perpetuate providing single use cups that will simply go to waste?

I took my car to a garage to have the timing belt changed and accidentally arrived an hour early – better than being late. Having five hours to kill, I walked into town and went for a coffee and sandwich before tackling the museums. I made it clear I was going to eat in, but the coffee arrived in a paper cup. 🙁 Next time I will ask for a proper cup.

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Apparently waste was used to fill the empty shipping containers returning to China but now, following China’s refusal to import certain waste materials, returning empty containers is uneconomic and there is a glut of new or nearly-new containers on the market which business people are snapping up to make available as storage units. There must be a limit to that market so what is going to happen to all the shipping containers that only have a one-way trip?