Takeaway Coffee Cups: The Issues Unwrapped

Who doesn't love their morning coffee to-go? With three million cups enjoyed each day, it's a real romance for most of us. Sadly up to a billion takeaway coffee cups end up in landfill every year and many in our oceans. They take years to degrade or just break into smaller pieces causing damage on land and in the sea.

Here's some business, industry and packaging expert advice on how to make your next coffee guilt-free.

Takeaway coffee cups are not recyclable

Due to the plastic resin inner lining (stuff called polyethylene), takeaway cups are not recyclable - even while they are mostly paper. It's almost impossible to sort them out for recycling, in fact, a UK study recently found that only one in 400 cups are recycled, even if they're thrown in recycling bins. Brendan Lee of Closed Loop says 'They look like cardboard and behave like cardboard, but it isn't and can't be mechanically separated and would have to be separated by hand. This is obviously far too expensive to do.'

Biodegradable cups are not guilt free either!

Generally, biodegradable cups are great IF they are disposed of in a commercial grade composter, less so in a home compost bin. They cannot go in recycling bins*. If they are thrown in the general waste that goes to landfill, they emit climate-damaging methane gas as they break down; the very worst of the greenhouse gases.

Takeaway cups are 'out' and reusable cups are 'in'

Reusable cups are on the rise. Benjamin Young of FrankGreen says 'We have found that 50% of our customers have never used a reusable product before'.

Many do not go back to disposable cups once investing in a reusable. The benefits and experience are continually improving. You can customize the colours that suit your style, grab discounts, loyalty or reward points from some cafes, and even pay with your cup using CafePay. 'It's all about behavior change and turning using reusables into habit and ritual. The rewards help create the habit'.

What can you do to help?

Aside from giving up coffee (never going to happen...), the experts tell us to:

  • AVOID using a takeaway cup – Sit, sip and relax in your local cafe.
  • REUSE if you're having it on the go, choose one of many reusable products on the market, such as FrankGreen, Joco or KeepCups**.
  • Only accept biodegradable cups if you have a compost facility nearby.
  • If you must use a takeaway cup, put it in the general rubbish bin - not the recycling bin.

In the future

There are moves to shake up the recycling process to make it easier to separate out takeaway cups. Closed Loop and their partner organisation the Australian Packaging Covenant, are trialing cup-only recycling bins in offices, to create a single waste stream that could attract a commercial market for them. This follows the success of Simply Cups in the UK which collects and recycles coffee cups into second-life materials using cutting edge technology. Closed Loop are currently running trials in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, so watch this space.

[Image supplied by Waverly Council]

In Bondi we like it 'Unwrapped'

Waverley Council are working with businesses and the community and to tackle takeaway waste with the project 'Bondi Unwrapped'. Businesses can access a free waste packaging assessment to help cafes and consumers make better purchasing decisions. To find out more, email

Thank you for making litter-free and waste-less neighborhoods' second nature.

NB: Please note that this information is most applicable to people living in Sydney, NSW and may differ from state to council. * Check with manufacturer to be sure.**This is not intended as an endorsement of these products.

Words by Asha Kayla, Sustainable Communities Manager.

[Header Image: Unsplash]

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