Are Take-Away Coffee Cups Recyclable?

Take a brisk morning stroll through any CBD and you'll witness clusters of workers waiting for their take-away coffee. It's as much about ritual as it is the caffeine. Baristas taking orders, the scrawling of names on plastic lids, the smell, the steam, and then that crisp new cup, warm in your hand. It's an effective incentive for getting out of bed, a 'pat on the back' for making it this far to work and little piece of comfort at the commencement of each day. But at the end of this ritual lies a garbage bin casket. The active life span of your beloved coffee cup has lasted all of fifteen minutes, only to be forgotten and replaced again tomorrow.

Unfortunately for all you on-the-go coffee aficionados, this is an unfair social and environmental exchange, and even the well-intentioned caffeine lover who tries to recycle their cup may in fact be doing more harm than good.

The Naked Truth

500 billion disposable coffee cups are produced globally each year. Australia uses 1 billion of these, and 90% end up in landfill. Contrary to popular belief takeaway cups are poorly recyclable, and it's not as simple as separating the lid from the cup. While the word 'paper' may imply that they are not as lousy as their disdainful cousin 'plastic', most cups have a dark underbelly called polyethylene (plastic) that makes them waterproof and prevents leakage. This material is not recyclable alongside paper and can contaminate a load, triggering the whole lot to go straight to landfill. To truly recycle your cup you'd have to go to quite some length by tearing back the paper exterior and ripping out the sneaky plastic lining. Easier said than done – who wants to stand on the side of the street mauling at a disposable cup?

This leaves us in an uncomfortable middling spot, as unfortunately there are not many solutions to marrying our love of take-away coffee with environmental sustainability.

Who is finding solutions?

Not not all heroes wear capes, and UK founded Closed Loop Environmental Solutions may be on the way to finding an innovative solution to the coffee cup conundrum. In an effort to divert coffee cups from landfill, Closed Loop collects used coffee cups and "takes them to a dedicated facility where they are shredded and made into polymer, a durable plastic which can be used for carry trays, placemats, coasters, outdoor furniture or even used in shop fit-outs" (Managing Director of Closed Loop, Robert Pascoe). In 2016, the organisation, backed by the Australian Packaging Covenant (APC), led a 4-week trial in three major Australian cities, wherein they placed dedicated recycling bins outside large office complexes. Sydney law firm Herbert Smith Freehills collected 4278 cups over the month long period, indicating that when recycling resources were provided people were willing to make environmentally sustainable choices. The success of this trial has paved the way for a more long-term program that might secure appropriate recycling facilities for disposable coffee cups.

Encouragement can also be found in France's recent commitment to banning plastic cups and plates. Announced in late 2016, these new laws will require all disposable cups and plates to be comprised of 50% biologically sourced and compostable materials by 2020. By championing the use of recyclable, reusable and compostable materials, France will hugely divert the amount of non-biodegradable coffee cups entering landfill.

Two practical solutions that are so easy they're embarrassing to write:

Keep Cup

The most straightforward solution is this: buy yourself a Keep Cup. They are lightweight, durable, low-energy manufactured and last for at least three years. On top of all this, they are really really ridiculously good-looking. They may cost you a little of your convenience - but only for the first 21 until you've formed the habit! You can pick up a 1 Million Women Keep Cup here.

Drink In

Factor an extra five minutes into your coffee-drinking schedule and take a seat. Read a great book - listen to one of our favourite podcasts – take a breather - bring a friend! Besides, what could be more satisfyingly hipster than drinking your flat white out of a heavy ceramic mug? Nothing.

Changing Your Mindset:

Too often we are attracted to ideas about environmental sustainability, but struggle to take the final step in translating emotional compassion into practical compassion. Our culture of convenience makes risk-taking/'against the grain' behaviour difficult. It doesn't come naturally (vital change rarely does). It is hard work embracing practices that are not wired into our default. A challenge: aim to notice the role apathy plays in blocking your practical compassion – reject the default – choose action over apathy.

Read this next: Can a café legally refuse my keep cup?

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1 Million Women is more than our name; it's our goal! We're building a movement of strong, inspirational women acting on climate change by leading low-carbon lives. To make sure that our message has an impact, we need more women adding their voice. We need to be louder. Joining us online means your voice and actions can be counted. We need you.

Social Media Intern Maria Juchov Suggest an article Send us an email

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