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
- Unfortunately, odds are pretty good that you’ll have to throw the paper cup away. However, there is better news for its accessories.
- 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.
- 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
- It’s estimated that 60 billion paper cups are thrown away in the U.S. each year
- Coffee chains recycle less than 1 percent of their cups internally
- If your paper cups are lined with polylactic acid (PLA) instead of polyethylene, they are able to be commercially composted in less than 60 days
Frequent Paper Cup Recycling Questions
Can I recycle paper cups in my curbside recycling program?
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.
Why do paper cups contain plastic lining?
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.
Why is it difficult for bio-based paper cups to be composted?
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.
If I can’t recycle or compost my paper cups, then what is the solution?
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.
Are plastic cups easier to recycle than paper cups?
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.
Are there any states that require paper cup recycling?
No. In fact, most municipalities would suggest that you throw them in the garbage.
- Reuse Ideas for Coffee Cups, Sleeves and Stirrers: There are plenty of crafty alternatives to throwing away your coffee cups
- Starbucks to Recycle Old Cups into Napkins: The world’s largest coffee retailer has come up with an option for recycling its cups
- What NOT to Put in the Bin: Paper cups are just one of many common sources of contamination in curbside recycling programs