How to Recycle Paper Cups

Your classic to-go coffee or soda cup is designed for one-time use, but unfortunately recycling at this point is basically nonexistent in the U.S. That’s because all cups are lined with a thin coating of plastic that can’t be easily separated during the recycling process. The most innovation on paper cup disposal has come in the field of composting, and that is still limited at best.

Paper Cup Recycling Preparation

  1. Unfortunately, odds are pretty good that you’ll have to throw the paper cup away. However, there is better news for its accessories.
  2. You can remove the paper sleeve for coffee cups and recycle that with corrugated cardboard. The plastic lid should be recyclable if your local program accepts #1-7 plastics in non-bottle form. The straw or stirrer should be thrown away.
  3. If you have a backyard compost bin and you purchase bio-based paper cups, you can try to compost them. The paper will break down, but you may have difficulty with the plastic lining.

Why Recycle/Compost Paper Cups

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Frequent Paper Cup Recycling Questions

It’s very rare that you will find a curbside recycling program that accepts paper cups, even if they are lined with bio-plastic. Some cities in California will accept paper cups with food waste, but you’ll want to check first.
The plastic lining serves two purposes. First, it makes the cup waterproof so it can hold liquid (if this is confusing, imagine drinking soda out of a rolled-up newspaper). Second, it helps the cup handle hot and cold temperatures to better protect your hands.
The plastic lining of paper cups may be made of polylactic acid (derived from corn starch instead of petroleum), but this bio-based plastic still requires extreme temperatures to break down in compost. Your home-based compost system may not get hot enough for it to break down, and commercial compost options are currently limited in the U.S.
Your best solution is to avoid using paper cups if possible. Many coffee shops will allow you to bring in your own reusable mug. Many fast food restaurants will sell you a large reusable plastic cup that you can refill on a future visit. In some cases, you’ll even receive a discount for reusing a cup.
Yes, unless they are expanded polystyrene (commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam). Plastic cups are generally composed of one material, usually polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or #1 plastic). If your local program accepts any plastics with a number (including most major U.S. cities), it will accept plastic cups. If you are choosing between paper or plastic cups when it comes to recycling, plastic is the better choice.
No. In fact, most municipalities would suggest that you throw them in the garbage.

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