People around the world love their coffee. So much so, that approximately 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed globally on a daily basis. This represents enough cups to circle the earth an astounding 40 times. While the types of coffee may vary by country, there is one issue that plagues all of them; dealing with the coffee cup waste.
Company and Government Efforts
With all of the coffee consumed globally, it begs the question, what happens to the paper coffee cups after the coffee has been consumed? Currently the waste produced from single-use coffee cups, specifically paper coffee cups, are ending up in landfills and as litter. Various governments have tried different approaches to deal with this waste. The Binners’ Project in the City of Vancouver has held four annual events, Coffee Cup Revolution, where waste pickers are paid 5 cents to collect and return single use coffee cups. The UK government has proposed a more drastic effort of charging a deposit, called a “latte levy” of 25p (approx. 45 cents CAD), for every single-use coffee cup sold within the UK.
Companies have also felt the pressure to deal with the waste produced from their cups. Across the pond, Starbucks and McDonalds, along with 14 other companies agreed to form the Paper Cup Recovery & Recycling Group (PCRRG) in the UK to tackle the paper cup problem. More locally and fairly recently, Starbucks, the largest coffee chain in the world, has committed $10M USD to develop a coffee cup that is fully recyclable and/or compostable.
Recyclability of Paper Coffee Cups
While there are several municipalities that do accept these cups for recycling (e.g. Vancouver, BC; Calgary, AB; Seattle, WA); most municipalities do not accept them. There are several reasons why coffee cups are not widely recycled, but one of the misconceptions is that the current coffee cups can’t be recycled. If this were true, no municipality would ever accept them.
In an earlier blog Recyclable vs Recycled, we discussed that almost all packaging is recyclable; however, not all packaging is accepted for recycling nor gets recycled. For packaging to be successfully recycled, it must have four key components in place: awareness, access, sorting capacity and end markets. In the case of paper coffee cups as currently designed, the primary barriers preventing them from being widely recycled are limited sorting capacity, and limited end markets.
Components of a Coffee Cup
A typical paper coffee cup consists of two materials; a polyethylene (PE) layer on the inside (to prevent the coffee from leaking) and a bleached-white fibre layer (to ensure the cup securely holds the hot beverage). Hence, coffee cups are also known as polycoat cups or single-sided poly cups. Coffee cups are similar in their make-up to polycoat cartons – gable top (typically milk) cartons and aseptic (typically juice and broth) cartons. Polycoat cartons are readily recycled and have both domestic and global markets, mainly in the U.S., Mexico and South Korea.
End Markets for Coffee Cups
The key difference between polycoat cartons and coffee cups is that cartons have two PE layers, one on the inside of the carton and one on the outside. The second layer allows the brands to print their logos and graphics directly on the PE layer, without having to print on the bleached fibre. This difference is critical as the end markets for recycled cartons, typically paper mills, buy used cartons for their bleached-white fibre to be used in the making of tissue and towelling products.
In the case of coffee cups, designs and logos such as the Starbuck’s Siren or Tim Hortons’ Christmas designs, are printed directly onto the paper layer. For paper mills looking to use the bleached fibre from the cups, they need to first remove the logos and designs, which is done through a process call de-inking. This enables the paper mills to recycle the coffee cups with cartons and produce the same tissue and paper towel products. Unfortunately, only a handful of mills have de-inking capabilities and they are mostly in the U.S.
As indicated earlier, Starbuck’s commitment to developing a recyclable and/or compostable cup is a significant commitment from the coffee chain; however, this is not sufficient to guarantee the cups will be recycled or composted. Without other coffee chains/companies following suit and making similar changes to their coffee cups, Starbucks’ investment is likely only going to lead to further consumer confusion and create contamination issues.
Key stakeholders including packaging suppliers, private waste companies, end markets, governments, and municipalities need to work collaboratively to address the cups issue. Investments will need to be made to ensure end markets are willing and able to buy used coffee cups and convert them into usable products. In parallel to this effort, investments will also need to be made at material recovery facilities (MRFs) that are not currently able to effectively sort coffee cups from the recycling stream. A recent study conducted by RSE explored the use of near-infrared (NIR) optical sorters from Tomra to sort coffee cups in MRFs. This will be discussed in our next upcoming blog.
 Ponte, Stefano. “The ‘Latte Revolution’? Regulation, Markets and Consumption in the Global Coffee Chain”. World Development. Elsevier Science Ltdlume=30: 1099–1122