The coffee cup recycling conundrum

Business RecyclingCoffee Cups

How our drinking habits are damaging the environment and what we can do about it

Disposable coffee cupsCoffee is the most popular drink worldwide and, despite being known for our love of tea, according to the British Coffee Association, in the UK we drink 95 million cups of coffee a day. This has led to a booming café culture, created over 210,000 jobs in Britain alone, and has significantly contributed to our economy. So, there is much to celebrate about this brew. But our nation’s drinking habits are also damaging the environment. This is because many of those 95 million cups we’re consuming are takeaway or from work vending machines. And the classic takeaway cup is disposable, meant for single-use and notoriously difficult to recycle. This means, in the UK, we’re throwing away 2.5 billion disposable cups a year, and less than 1% of these are being recycled. You can probably guess where they end up instead. So, how, as businesses, do we stop this from happening? Giving up coffee altogether seems a little drastic (and may hinder those productivity levels), so how can we drink coffee, but sustainably?


The problem with disposable coffee cups

First of all, let’s talk about why disposable coffee cups are so difficult to recycle. To withstand holding such boiling hot liquid, these cups are made up of a mixture of paper and polyethylene film. The latter keeps the cup waterproof, heatproof and helps it retain its structure. So, for a takeaway coffee, this mixture of materials is perfect.

But, when it comes to recycling, this mixture is far from perfect. To be recycled, the plastic polyethylene film has to be separated from the paper, and, although not impossible, this process can be more trouble than it’s worth. On top of this, the cups are usually contaminated with whatever liquid they’ve been holding. So, in reality, despite technically being “recyclable”, most facilities won’t recycle disposable coffee cups (check out our ‘recycle responsibly’ section to find out more about the facilities that do). Instead, the cups will either be turned into Waste-to-Energy or sent to landfill. And, as we all know by now, sat in landfill, unrecycled plastics take hundreds of years to break down, resulting in microplastics and chemicals that can harm animals, including ourselves. The paper, too, is wasted in landfill. To create that cup, trees have been felled and energy has been used, only to have the paper used for the length of time it takes to drink a cappuccino – a huge waste of a resource that has the potential to be recycled up to 7 times.


What’s the solution?


  1. Reduce and reuse

Sat at the top of the waste hierarchy, these two ‘R’s involve reducing the amount of waste you create and reusing what you’ve already got. Put into the context of coffee, this means finding sustainable alternatives to disposable cups. On an individual level, this could mean taking your own thermos of coffee out with you, using a mug at work rather than the vending machine cups, or buying a reusable cup made from eco-friendly materials (e.g. bamboo) and taking this to your favourite coffee shop for them to fill. Many coffee shops now offer initiatives for bringing your own; Pret A Manger and PAUL offer a 50p discount, Costa Coffee and Starbucks offer a 25p discount (and Starbucks has also introduced a 5p “latte levy”), Caffè Nero gives you double loyalty stamps,and Greggs offers a 20p discount. These are just a few of the big chains; lots of coffee shops, big and small, are rewarding customers for bringing their own cup – it’s the perfect way to get cheaper coffee and help the environment at the same time.

Similarly, as a business or organisation, you could implement a BYORC (Bring Your Own Reusable Cup) policy, stock your office kitchen with enough mugs for everyone and encourage staff to wash and reuse, invest in a hot drinks vending machine that fits reusable cups under the dispenser and, while you’re on a role, swap out single-serve items, such as coffee pods, for eco-friendly bulk buys in line with the amount of coffee your workplace gets through (to avoid any food waste).


  1. Recycle responsibly

If you can’t reduce or reuse, the next best option is to recycle responsibly. But hold on a minute, didn’t we say earlier that coffee cup recycling doesn’t really happen? Well, that stands true. The number of cups being thrown away dramatically outweighs those that are currently recycled. However, there are a few specialist plants in the UK that accept disposable cups and are able to turn them back into new products.

For individuals, putting a disposable cup into your household recycling bin may seem like the obvious solution, but, by doing so, you’re far more likely to unintentionally send it to Waste-to-Energy or landfill. Instead, you are better off returning your cup to a coffee shop chain that has recycling points for customers. Just last autumn, Pret A Manger launcheda coffee cup recycling scheme in over 350 of their branches, allowing customers to recycle any paper coffee cup, not just those purchased from Pret, at recycling points on the shop floor.

For businesses, where disposable cups are used in larger quantities, to ensure your cups are recycled, it’s best to do your research and either find a facility that will recycle your cups directly and responsibly, or work with a waste management company that will collect your cups for you and send them on to one of the specialist plants themselves. This is what we do at Printwaste – we work together with Sonoco Alcore and ACE UK to ensure our customers’ disposable cups avoid landfill and are recycled responsibly. We also supply customers with specialist bins, specifically designed for these cups, so that they’re stored correctly and have the most potential to be recycled. And, while we’re busy doing that, our customers get to enjoy a cuppa in the knowledge they’ve done something good for the environment!


If you’re a business or organisation and, after reading this, want to find out more about coffee cup recycling, give us a call on 01242 588600 or email us at and we’ll be happy to help.


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