Woman holding takeaway cup while looking at phone

Throwaway coffee cups: what should we do?

So disposable “paper” coffee cups have plastic in them, and loads of them are not being recycled. What can be done? We answer your questions.
  Published:  08 Feb 2018    |      8 minute read

Takeaway cups: what's wrong with them?

Three problems: what they’re made of, how many there are, and where they end up.

With more than 4 times as many takeaway coffee shops in the UK today as there were 20 years ago, the waste is at an epic scale. We’re using and binning at least 2.5 billion takeaway cups a year. That’s way over Albert Hall-filling proportions.

And in spite of what most people think, less than 0.25% of those cups – just one in every 400 – are recycled. Every day around half a million become street litter, and the vast bulk of them end up in landfill, where the plastic could take centuries to degrade.

Here’s the most frustrating part. Even the cups that people were carefully placing into recycling bins weren’t usually being recycled – sometimes even when they carried a recycling triangle symbol.

To find out why, and how we can all do our bit to fix this problem, keep reading…

Woman holding a pink reusable takeaway cup
Get yourself a reusable takeaway cup

Why are takeaway cups not recycled? Aren’t they mostly paper?

In recent years paper cups have largely replaced those spongy white “styrofoam” (expanded polystyrene) cups for hot takeaway drinks. That may have seemed like a good move, amid both environmental and health concerns – but these paper cups are not all they seem.

Paper cups need to be waterproofed and reinforced in some way, so that they don’t dissolve and scald you. Health and safety and all that.

This used to be done with a wax coating inside the cups. But in recent years that’s been widely replaced by an almost invisible plastic (polyethylene) lining.

Thing is, most people aren’t actually aware of the plastic lining. Even so-called single-wall paper cups (which don’t have a distinct second insulating layer) have this thin, sealed-on plastic coating inside.

The component parts – the paper and plastic – are each recyclable. It’s the way they’re bonded together that makes these cups tricky to dismantle and recycle.

Tricky but not impossible…

Where can these cups be recycled?

There are just a couple of recycling plants in the UK that have the technology to separate and recycle these plastic-lined paper cups. So right now pretty much all the paper cups in the UK would have to be sent to one of those two places.

One is the James Cropper paper mill, which works with waste disposers Veolia. The other is run by Sonoco Alcore in conjunction with ACE UK, the drinks carton recyclers.

The good news is that some of the big coffee chains are now making efforts to send disposable cups to the right recycling plants. For instance by installing dedicated in-store cup-recycling bins.

There are a few hurdles to overcome though:

  1. Cost. There’s obviously an investment involved in providing these dedicated bins and sending them to specialised recycling plants. It could be argued the big coffee companies should pay, as they profit most. Smaller cafes might find this cost harder.
  2. Hassle. By definition most takeaway cups will end up off the premises, so customers have to be persuaded to bring back their empties for recycling. (Some shops now generously accept rivals’ cups too.) We think cup recycling should really be made as easy and accessible as possible.
  3. Contamination. A lot of people don’t know about this one. Paper recyclers generally don’t seem to cope well with food (or messy drink) residues on waste paper. If there’s too much of this in a batch, the whole lot can all end up in landfill. We’d hope developments in recycling technology could find solutions to this before too long.

Another option is to redesign those plastic-lined cups to make them easier to recycle. In fact this has already been done by companies like Frugalpac.

What about cup lids: are they recyclable?

Takeway cup lids are usually made of hard polystyrene (triangle code 6), which is not widely recycled – so they need to be removed and binned separately.

Polystyrene can be recycled, but it’s generally considered too difficult and expensive to make it worthwhile.

Again, we’d like to see better technological solutions found, both in the choice of materials used and the levels of recycling nationwide.

Why aren't there more places that can recycle these cups?

That’s such a good question. The answer is probably a variation on the old chicken and egg story.

There aren’t enough facilities because it’s claimed there hasn’t been enough demand. And there hasn’t been enough demand because not enough people knew there was a problem. (And because regulators have allowed coffee shops to ignore the problem.) Until now anyway.

The past few months have seen a growing mood for change.

Should non-recyclable cups and containers just be banned?

In a word, yes. If they can’t be recycled, they shouldn’t be allowed.

We know this isn’t going to happen overnight. But the recent report on disposable coffee cups from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (the one that proposed the 25p “latte levy” charge on takeaway drinks) says it wants to see all single-use coffee cups being recycled by 2023. Otherwise, it says, “the government should ban them.”

We agree – and have been saying so for a while.

A close up of a woman's hand holding a takeaway coffee cup
Credit: Pixabay

Is the proposed 25p "latte levy" on takeaway drinks just another government tax punishing the public?

UK plastic bag use fell more than 83% within a year after the charge was brought in. There have been similar results elsewhere. Financial incentives can be effective at changing widespread behaviour – and pretty quickly too.

The thing is, if you’re a taxpayer you’re already paying for the disposal of takeaway cup waste by the local council anyway – whether you use the cups yourself or not.

And if a 25p "latte levy" reduces takeaway cup usage, there will be less waste to be landfilled or incinerated – and local authorities will have more resources (an estimate £438 million altogether) to spend on essential services. So everyone benefits.

According to a recent YouGov survey, 3 in 4 people in the UK would support a charge on disposable coffee cups. The coffee shops themselves aren’t so keen, some arguing that it could deter customers.

The 25p is actually a recommended minimum. The Commons Environmental Audit report suggests a 50p differential is more likely to have an impact on people’s behaviour. In theory the levy could then be reduced over time, as our coffee cup practices change for the better.

In fact we’d prefer a refundable and returnable deposit scheme, so there’s more of an incentive for customers to take the cup back for recycling rather than chucking it in the bin. It would also mean companies bearing more of the financial burden.

Where would the latte levy fee go?

The extra charge should ideally be used to invest in better and more accessible recycling facilities – improving what’s known as the country’s “binfrastructure” (what a great word that is).

At the moment fewer than half of local councils provide on-the-go recycling bins in the street.

We want councils to explore the best ways to increase recycling rates, whether it’s near cafes or elsewhere.

Some of the levy money should also go towards a wide-reaching public awareness campaign, making sure cup recycling becomes the norm.

If people are being asked to pay more for a disposable cup, they should rightly expect that fee to help solve the cup waste problem.

Who should pay the extra: coffee shops, customers, or both?

Another good question. The principle is that the polluter pays. But who is the polluter here? The customer who bins the cup? Or the cafe who gave them the cup? Or even the manufacturer who made the hard-to-recycle cup? Or all of the above?

There are already government regulations intended to make producers of packaging liable for its disposal costs. But in practice that’s not completely effective, so far anyway.

The same Environmental Audit Committee report recommends that the government rewards packagers who use recyclable, compostable or generally more sustainable packaging materials, and should impose penalties for packaging that’s hard to recycle.

Again the revenue this raises should ideally be invested in more reprocessing facilities and local authority binfrastructure.

The report also points out that the UK government doesn’t have a target for coffee cup recycling at the moment, though it does have targets for paper and plastic recycling under the EU Waste Directive (targets for 2020 are 69.5% and 51% respectively).

As the report says: “It’s unclear which category disposable coffee cups fall into. Whichever one it is, we are set to miss it without radical action.”

Are degradable cups better?

A degradable cup might sound like a good solution – surely it means the cup just safely dissolves away in the environment? Well, not necessarily. If it still contains plastic, it’s more complicated.

There are two types of degradable plastic, neither of them perfect:

  1. “Degradable” – just means normal oil-based plastic with a chemical additive that gradually breaks down the plastic into smaller particles (if exposed to enough sunlight and/or oxygen). But it never completely goes away, and can still contaminate soil or water.
  2. “Biodegradable” – usually refers to bio-plastic, made from plant materials (like corn or potato starch), which in theory will be broken down/ingested by natural micro-organisms into harmless elements.

But that might only happen if the conditions are right – enough heat for example. And it might take a long time if the plastic material is hard.

Plant-based plastic could also come from genetically modified source crops, or be grown on land that should be used to produce food.

Bio-plastics can also cause contamination (and therefore more waste) if they’re lumped in with regular plastic recycling.

Even the paper component in cups isn’t necessarily always harmless – for instance if it’s sourced from poorly managed, unsustainable forestry. Ideally the paper should have an Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification logo.

Tricky isn’t it?

But we don’t believe the public should be burdened with all these choices and responsibilities alone. The manufacturers and coffee sellers should be required to make better environmental decisions.

Hand holding Vegware compostable cup
Vegware compostable cup
Credit: MarkCox/Vegware

Maybe compostable cups are best? Or would they dissolve in your hand?

If you must use any kind of disposable cup (or plate, cutlery etc) then “compostable” is the thing to look for. Natural biodegradable products tend to be made from plant fibres (vegetables, sugars, hemp, bamboo etc). They're designed to degrade more quickly, and be safely turned into compost.

But hold on – before you go chucking your used “compostable" cup into the nearest flowerbed. It’s only going to rot down properly in the right conditions – with suitable heat, moisture and micro-organisms. That’s usually only possible at an industrial composting facility. So adding it to a home compost heap probably won’t work either.

The UK-based Vegware range, for example, is advertised as “low carbon, made from renewable or recycled materials, and all can be recycled along with food waste”. (If your council doesn’t offer food waste collections there might be a local community composting scheme).

At the extreme “complete disposal” end of the spectrum, you can now even get edible (cereal-based) cups suitable for hot drinks. We know what you might be thinking… but apparently your coffee won’t start to leak out through the cup for at least half an hour.

And if you don’t want to eat your cup it can still be composted.

Isn’t reusing better than recycling?

We think so. Preventing waste in the first place is usually the best idea. Recycling is better than landfill, but it’s still an energy and water-intensive affair.

And besides, recycling only works if we all buy enough stuff made from recycled products – otherwise there’s little financial incentive for manufacturers to make more of them, and for recycling to keep expanding.

So let’s look at the two options in the reusable cup camp:

  1. You bring your own cup/travel mug to the coffee shop every time.
  2. The cafe provides a sturdy-ish plastic takeaway cup which you later return to them for cleaning and reuse.

Big coffee chains like Costa, Starbucks, Pret and Café Nero have been offering a 25p discount for using a reusable cup – either one of theirs or your own.

Sounds good? Well yes – except not enough people are taking up the offer. It’s less than 2% of sales in fact.

That could be because it’s not well enough promoted by the coffee shops – but it could also be because 25p just isn’t enough of an incentive to change behaviour. (Pret recently announced it was increasing its reusable cup discount to 50p, which may have more of an impact.)

Inevitably a lot of portable cups are still made from plastic too, and will at some stage need to be recycled themselves. Other materials are available though, from stainless steel to reinforced glass. See our review of reusable coffee cups.

JOCO coffee cup

What happens now?

We need to move on several fronts. We’d like to see technological advances in recycling and wider use of compostable materials. And ideally a move away from oil-based plastics altogether.

In the meantime we need to do a better job of recycling existing stocks of takeaway cups.

You can join us in asking the government to:

  • Force big coffee chains to provide suitable recycling bins.
  • Ban takeaway cups that can't be recycled.
  • Reward us for bringing our own mugs to a café.