Debunking the myth of recyclable coffee cups

Miranda Babbitt
March 27, 2014
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the midst of midterms, assignments and all-nighters, coffeehouses and cafés can be a student’s best friend. We get our caffeinated boost, often multiple times a day, and dispose single-use coffee cups into waste, recycling or green bins.

Consumers often feel throwing their coffee cups into recycling or green bins is enough, and as far as the majority is aware, this means they are recycled or composted and we are moving towards a more sustainable future.

But contrary to this belief, landfills in Hamilton and Toronto receive over 1 million coffee cups per day. The standard coffee cup used by big chains such as Starbucks, Tim Horton’s and William’s Café contain a polyethylene coating around the paper cup as well as the rim to prevent the cup from soaking. Non-recyclable ink is used for the graphics on the cup, and it seeps into the paper itself.

In Hamilton, coffee cups are directed towards organic waste piles, ready for composting. However, Joel McCormick, Manager of the Central Composting Facility in Hamilton states, “coffee cups can be the largest contaminant of waste processing facilities other than polyethylene bags themselves.”

Once a coffee cup has arrived to a waste processing plant, it undergoes organic treatment to degrade the paper layer. The polyethylene layer remains, and what was once a coffee cup devolves into a pseudo-plastic bag. These plastic components are then sorted in the “hurricane” phase and piled with other organics that are shipped to a landfill.

However, unlike Hamilton, most North American waste processing plants are not capable of treating coffee cups as organic waste. Instead, they are usually shipped to landfills, recyclable components and all.

A report by Entec Consulting in 2009 further emphasized that the cost to process coffee cups outweighs their overall financial gain, and that it is best to continue treating coffee cups in the “waste” stream of processing plants. Any profits the plant receives in selling batches of recycled paper are threatened due to the increased likelihood of polyethylene contamination− a threat that can be reduced if waste processing plants are upgraded.

Yet the need to place convenience over sustainability remains a uniquely North-American problem. In Europe for example, homemade coffee is increasing in popularity, and in China, paper cups are not used.  The over-consumption of coffee cups is not a global issue, thus policymakers cannot examine our European counterparts for possible solutions. In some cases, simply increasing consumer knowledge can produce results. In an IPSOS focus group in 2009, over 90 percent of Torontonians believed coffee cups are recyclable. In addition, 70 percent of coffee cups received at a landfill are used as a part of daily routine. If these individuals were to use reusable coffee cups, reduce caffeine consumption and/or use Styrofoam cups, the amount of single-use coffee cups in landfills is estimated to decline by 65 percent.

Initiatives that can be implemented right at McMaster University include the use of designated coffee-cup bins. This ensures sorting of the single-use cups before they enter the waste processing facility, thereby reducing the risk of contamination with other mixed paper and organic products. Not only will this reduce contamination, it works to debunk the myth of recyclable coffee cups. Further, students are recommended to take advantage of sustainability programs put in place by coffee giants like Tim Horton’s, where using a reusable cup takes 10 cents off your purchase; and Starbucks, which uses coffee cups made of 10 percent recycled fibers, the provincial maximum.

The success of future sustainability programs relies on transparency to the public, making it clear that the city discourages use of single-use coffee cups that are not recyclable or sustainable with our resources.



Subscribe to our Mailing List

© 2022 The Silhouette. All Rights Reserved. McMaster University's Student Newspaper.