Reduce, Reuse, Return: Interrupting the Cup Cycle

What does happen to all those cups? They’re paper, right? Paper = Recycling; Recycling = Sustainability? Right?


Each year, 120 billion disposable cups are made to be thrown away in the US. To put that in perspective, lined up end to end, it would circle the earth 450 times. You could drive for 21 years before reaching the end of the line.

And to further burst your bubble: No. They’re not being recycled.

The Cup Conundrum

Paper cups are lined with plastic, which is great because coffee doesn’t seep out of the seam and leaks on your hand. However, this also makes them a composite material (neither paper nor plastic) and therefore non-recyclable. Sure, technically you could soak the cups in a warm chemical bath and wait for the plastic to separate, skim off the plastic, and then start processing the pulp. But who has the time or money for that? Certainly not the commodities market.

The truth is that not all materials have value downstream and are not “worth it” to recycle. This includes the takeaway coffee cup and the polystyrene lid. Recycling in itself has been a big push from the manufacturers themselves. Under the guise of business associations or recycling alliances, powerful lobbying efforts are put into making us believe that everything has another life as long as we, the consumers, take responsibility and properly dispose of these materials.

In reality, it kicks responsibility and cost onto business owners, municipalities, and the public.

“But we’ve been buying compostable cups and corn plastic lids,”

I’m sure you see where this is going. Just because there is a green leaf printed on the cup doesn’t necessarily make it a better alternative. Bio-plastics are still plastics, they’re just made from different sources; Meaning, when they end up in the ocean or landfill, they’re going to stay in the ocean or landfill just as long as regular plastic. Farms that compost, typically reject loads with “compostable” packaging and high heat industrial facilities most often screen them out for landfill with de-packaging machines.

Some terms to look for are “backyard compostable” or “marine degradable.” These items will usually make it through the screening process or if misplaced will break down in a reasonable amount of time.

“Better” Waste vs. Zero Waste

As a society, we’ve been tunnel-visioned on finding better ways to waste. Imagine a business looking for better ways to lose money. If we are to pursue true sustainability, we need to find ways to make less waste in the first place.

Europe has led the charge on reusable systems for nearly a decade. Reusable cup systems started popping up at festivals and have since evolved into takeaway coffee and food systems. ReCup and ReBowl in Germany give access to a reusable item almost anywhere you go by leaving a simple cash deposit for the item. Australia is following suit with Green Caffeine and their swap-and-go app.

In the US, New York City Based startup Cup Zero is giving access to reusables to busy New Yorkers. Users borrow a reusable cup by scanning a QR code and when they are finished they can bring the cup back to the same shop or any other participating location. The program is free to use as long as the cups are returned within 14 days.

Reduce, Reuse, and if there is no other option, look for recycling options. Whether you train your staff to push to-stay cups, come up with your own deposit system, or use an app like Cup Zero, the key is taking active steps towards reducing impact. If everyone committed to one less, we’d be many steps closer to Zero.

by Michael Cyr – Waste Industry Expert and Zero Waste Advocate

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