Article 15/04/2018

Can you recycle coffee cups?

By Lauren Rutter

 Is it too little too latte?

Can you recycle coffee cups? You might have debated this with friends, coworkers or family, but the answer isn’t as simple as a morning cup.

With top-notch coffee being an Australian specialty, our morning skim flat white or soy cappuccino is about as routine as brushing our teeth, or breathing. Of a weekday morning, you would be hard-pressed to find someone without a takeaway coffee in their hand; the caffeine gently nudging them along as they start the daily grind.

Our love of coffee and our incomparable baristas are a matter of national pride. Even the age-old debate of Sydney versus Melbourne boils down to who brews the best cuppa. This innocent habit isn’t without its dangers though – the environmental impact of your morning takeaway routine lives far beyond the 15 minutes it takes to consume.

Did you know that most takeaway coffee cups are not recyclable?

“But it’s paper!” you chant. – Now swallow that sip of latte, lest you spray it from your mouth in shock – Most takeaway coffee cups are lined with a waterproof plastic called polyethylene, not only making them non-recyclable but also a contaminant. A polyethylene-lined coffee cup thrown into a recycling bin causes such logistical nightmares for material recovery facilities, that it could potentially cause the entire load to be sent to landfill. On top of that, in landfill, these cups release methane gas – a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Ok, so that’s all a little hard to relate to, and maybe the word gas makes you snigger like a school kid, so let’s approach it from another angle: Planet Ark states that, in Australia alone, 50,000 coffee cups go into landfill every 30 minutes.

It’s hard to get your head around, but just think of all the people buying coffee at the same place and same time as you. Then think about all the people who came in 10 minutes or 30 minutes before you; or an hour or two after you. Then consider all the coffee shops in your area, and in your city. Finally, think about this repeating at every coffee shop, every single day, all year. – That’s 1 billion single-use coffee cups used annually.

Can you recycle coffee cups?….. It’s complicated

Some coffee cups are made from the same wax-coated paper as milk cartons (LPB) making them technically recyclable. A 10 cent refund is offered on these flavoured milk cartons under the Container Deposit Scheme (CDS) or Return and Earn (as it’s known in NSW), however some believe this offer should extend to coffee cups of the same material. Unfortunately though, this is not a viable solution. Offering a 10 cent refund on the small portion of recyclable (LPB) coffee cups may raise awareness against public place litter, however it would not capture the majority of cups as they are more commonly lined with the polyethylene plastic, and the risk of contaminating other recyclable products within the CDS is far too high.

Now, I wouldn’t dare ask you to kick the habit, nor am I asking you to sacrifice your mortgage and invest in drinking avo-lattes from now on – but if you can commit to one small change in your routine, the knock-on effect will be hugely significant.

Choose your own adventure

Pick an eco-friendly option and flick ahead to the page where you personally save hundreds of coffee cups per year from being sent to landfill:

  1. Drink-in: Take an extra 5 minutes to sit down and drink from a cup and saucer – it will give you time to make a call or plan your day, and you may even score a free bikkie on the side
  2. Buy a reusable cup: These cups last for over 3 years and are made of recyclable materials such as polypropylene plastic (which is BPA free), ceramic, bamboo or glass. Read this to find out which cup is right for you.
  3. If you absolutely get stuck and you’re not willing to have the coffee poured directly into your mouth by the barista, then at least recycle the plastic lid, and ensure the cup is disposed of in a general waste bin – so as not to contaminate other recyclable materials

It may be inconvenient at first and requires a little extra organisation, but individually making this change truly does make a difference.

For more information, check out the ABC’s War On Waste.

By Lauren Rutter