Are takeaway coffee cups recyclable?


CHOICE explains the problems with disposable cups and actions you can take to stop the coffee cup pile-up.

Let's grab a coffee – billions of them


A brisk walk through the bustling CBD in the morning sees clusters of workers waiting for their morning coffee hit. Baristas take orders, scrawl on lids, froth milk, shout out names and wrangle the steaming machines to extract the holy grail for their congregation.

But at the end of these well-oiled production lines, replicated all over the world, are garbage bins brimming with disposable cups and lids, cups left on benches, at bus stops, blowing down the street and rolling in the gutters.

It's estimated that as many as three billion coffee cups are sold each year in Australia. And most of these aren't recycled – they're piling up in landfill and escaping into our rivers, parks and marine systems.

So we should recycle them, then?

Not necessarily. The well-intentioned caffeine lover who tries to do the right thing and recycle their cup may be doing more harm than good. The plastic waterproof lining of many paper coffee cups means they can't be recycled with collections of paper and cardboard and may actually contaminate a load, causing the whole lot to be sent to landfill. 

Factor in the hefty use of resources that goes into producing them, and coffee cups are landing a triple blow to our environment.

So what's a caffeine-craving consumer to do to tackle this mounting environmental issue while satiating our quest for the beloved brew? We look at:

What are the main problems with the takeaway coffee cup? 

Pollution 

Coffee and hot drink cups make up a significant portion of polluting litter in the environment. 

Tim Silverwood of Take 3, a group campaigning to reduce plastic pollution and clean up the oceans, says, "We see thousands of coffee cups and lids through our clean-up activities polluting beaches, waterways and parks and streets." 

Takeaway cups and takeaway food containers (including coffee cups) are 23% (or the second-largest category) of litter by volume in NSW, according to the Keep Australia Beautiful – National Litter Index 2014–15. 

Plastic and polystyrene break down into smaller pieces in marine ecosystems and are ingested by birds, fish, turtles and other creatures, sometimes with fatal results. 

Alarmingly, a 2016 World Economic Forum report said that the world was on track to have more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Landfill 

It's estimated that 500 billion coffee cups are produced globally each year and if they were placed end to end they'd circumnavigate the globe 1360 times! Planet Ark says that about 60,000 kilograms of plastic waste from coffee cups is directed to landfill each year in Australia, where it can take about 50 years to break down. 

Are any takeaway coffee cups recyclable? 

Paper-based cups 

 Plastic lining of coffee cup
The plastic lining of paper-based cups, shown here, is not easily recyclable or biodegradable.

Paper-based cups are usually lined with a membrane of polyethylene (plastic) to make them waterproof, but it means they are not recyclable alongside paper or cardboard, or biodegradable. 

There are many hybrid varieties of coffee cup on the market including wax-coated cups (like milk cartons) and 'biodegradable' cups. 

But Dave West, National Policy Director of the Boomerang Alliance, says that without clear labelling, most people and recycling facilities can't distinguish which cups can be processed and recycled with the cardboard and paper recycling. 

As for the cups that are labelled biodegradable, Tim Silverwood says, "Biodegradable cups don't compost in normal compost. It takes very specific industrial composting conditions, which are not available to the bulk of the population." 


Planet Ark recommends separating the lids and putting ALL coffee cups in the waste bin for landfill. Otherwise they can contaminate tonnes of recyclable items, resulting in far more material ending up in landfill.

Polystyrene cups 

There are limited recycling services available for polystyrene (styrofoam) and it often escapes from landfill, breaks apart and becomes a pollutant that can be ingested by marine life and other creatures. More than 70 cities in the US have bans on polystyrene, including Washington DC, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Albany and Seattle, and there are calls for it to be banned in Australia. 

The length of time it takes for polystyrene to decompose is unknown. 

There are few places that can recycle polystyrene so polystyrene cups should be placed in the bin for landfill. 

Then there's the energy, paper and water use...

It's been calculated that one disposable cup contains only five percent of the raw materials that were used to create and transport it. 

The paper component of coffee cups are made from bleached virgin material. This involves the harvesting of trees and pulping, washing and processing the material, all of which require large amounts of water and energy. In fact, it takes 98 tonnes of resources to produce just one tonne of paper. 

Plastic and polystyrene cups are made from non-renewable crude oil and require significant energy for their production. A 2016 World Economic Forum report found that for single use plastic packaging, 95% of its invested value is lost to the global economy after its short first use. 

So what's a conscientious coffee lover to do? 

Reduce – take a seat 

We're not going to advise skipping that coffee, far from it. But you can skip the takeaway queue and treat yourself to a barista-crafted coffee, at a table, in a warmed ceramic cup with a saucer. 

And, if you do take away, don't take a lid. It lasts a few minutes in your hand and a lifetime in landfill. 

Re-use ­– bust old habits and get a stylish, reusable coffee cup 

The reusable coffee cup is gaining ground among aware consumers. According to the KeepCup website, using one of its plastic (LDPE) recyclable KeepCups for a year, instead of disposable paper coffee cups will lead to a:

  • 36-47% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • 64-85% reduction in water use
  • 91-92% reduction in landfill.
A study from the University of Victoria in Canada created a 'break-even' matrix for the energy inputs in production of disposable paper cups compared with reusable plastic, glass and ceramic cups. It found that you'd need to use a glass reusable cup 15 times before it becomes equally energy efficient to a paper cup. 
 Glass re-usable coffee cup
A reusable glass KeepCup

The study found that a plastic reusable cup breaks even with the paper cup after 17 uses, and a ceramic cup after 39 uses. 

What's stopping us? 

Consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier explains why some people haven't embraced the reusable cup. First and foremost, as you'd expect, he says it's less convenient. 

But he also says, "The type of coffee and where you get it from says a lot about you. It's a badge of sophistication, a signifier that you are in the know of where to get the best coffee." 

Consumer psychologist Paul Harrison agrees, saying that carrying that cup is about social norms and social cache, saying, "Even if we have environmental beliefs, it takes risk-taking behaviour to step outside of social norms". 

What you can do

Embrace some risk-taking behaviour and buy yourself a reusable coffee cup that says you're sophisticated and 'in the know'. Then form a habit to use it daily (keep it in your bag). 

France says 'non' to disposable cups 

Reusable coffee cups will be de rigueur in France by 2020 as it has boldly become the first country in the world to ban disposable plastic cups, plates, food boxes and cutlery. 

The new law is in addition to the country's Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, which also outlawed plastic bags this year. France wants to build a 'circular economy' in an effort to cut landfill waste in half by 2025 and reduce greenhouse emissions 40% by 2030. 

Coffee cups and the circular economy

The circular economy is the basis of a new repair, reuse and re-manufacture model for plastics advanced in the 2016 World Economic Forum report, The New Plastics Economy. 

The aim of the circular economy is to keep materials circulating in a technical or biological cycle at their highest value. It's geared towards designing out waste, unlike our current 'take-make-dispose' linear economy, which results in massive waste.  

Silverwood says, "In an ideal setting, you'd have a disposable coffee cup manufactured from recycled material with an 80–95% recovery rate and then you can start creating a circular model for those materials." 

"This will need the right infrastructure to collect and reprocess the material." 

Should we have special coffee cup recycling streams?

A recent successful trial collection of coffee cups in dedicated cup recycling bins inside office buildings in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney showed that consumers were keen to have their disposable cups recycled. 

The company involved, Closed Loop Environmental Solutions, hopes to also set up a specialised coffee cup recycling and processing facility whereby the cups are up-cycled by blending with recycled plastics and manufactured into products such as trays, coasters and placemats. 

Can coffee cups be part of a container deposit scheme? 

Dave West from the Boomerang Alliance thinks that coffee cups should be incorporated into container deposit schemes (CDS), pointing out: "Flavoured milk cartons will be in the New South Wales Container Deposit Scheme." 

Some coffee cups are made from the same wax-coated paper as milk cartons, which is different to the plastic-lined cups. Unlike the polyethylene lined cups, West says these are recyclable.

New South Wales will introduce a container deposit scheme in July 2017, and Western Australia and Queensland have also both announced they'll introduce a CDS. The Northern Territory and South Australia already have them operating. None incorporate coffee cups, but the Northern Territory and South Australian schemes do include flavoured milk cartons. 

Find or inspire a 'Responsible Cafe'

As featured on the ABC's War on Waste TV program, 'Responsible Cafes' can reduce the use of disposable coffee cups by offering a discount to customers with reusable takeaway cups.

You can suggest your local cafe becomes a Responsible Cafe by getting in touch with the ABC info@responsiblecafes.org and they'll help out with materials, information and promoting the cafe on social media . 

So what's the best solution to the coffee cup pile-up?

  1. Treat yourself – sit down and enjoy that premium cup of coffee in a cafe from a warmed cup and saucer.
  2. Bust social norms and use your own stylin' reusable cup.

And if you do go with a disposable cup:

A. Say no thanks to a lid.

B. Ask for a cup from renewable resources like managed plantation paperboard.

C. Bin it, don't recycle it.

Note for coffee drinkers in the ACT and Brisbane: 

Councils in both of these cities have advised CHOICE that they have contracts with waste services providers who can recycle plastic-lined cups and they can be put in recycling bins. This does not apply in other cities. 

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