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Leon Kaye headshot

Australia Pilots Disposable Coffee Cup Recycling Project

By Leon Kaye

Taking a cup of java to-go is the daily morning routine for millions of workers worldwide. But the problem with takeaway coffee, popularized by chains such as Starbucks, is those pesky disposable cups.

Most of them are made of paper with a thin layer of plastic, which succeeds quite well in keeping beverages warm and cups unsodden. But the result is that recycling these cups is almost impossible in most municipalities, as the paper-plastic combination makes them very difficult to reprocess into new materials. The amount of single-use cups that end in landfills depends on the source cited, but CNN suggested as many as 60 billion are thrown away each year.

For years, coffee chains like Starbucks declined to take responsibility for this problem, saying the patchwork of recycling solutions from town-to-town and state-to-state is the issue.

A company in the United Kingdom, however, says it has a solution to the disposable coffee cup conundrum. And a trial run of its products in Australia may reveal the answer for waste diversion efforts worldwide.

Simply Cups designed a single-use cup that still uses the paper-plastic combination. But the difference is that the company says it has two methods of treating these used cups. Either the paper fiber and polyethylene lining can be separated, or the entire cup can be completely reprocessed into a polymer for use in products such as trays and coasters. Simply Cups also operates a used cup collection service, giving customers and businesses an opportunity to be part of a closed-loop system.

According to Singapore-based Eco-Business, the outcome of a four-week pilot project suggests that such a closed-loop system could scale in Australia. Led by the waste management consultancy Closed Loop Environmental Solutions of Melbourne, the project involved placing special bins at office buildings in three large Australian cities to collect used coffee cups.

The program gathered over 12,000 coffee cups. For now, the pitched cups are being displayed in order to impart the value of recycling. The cups will eventually be recycled; in the meantime, Closed Loop’s team and municipal officials will complete further study on how to make the economic case for a dedicated recycling facility. Closed Loop says the four-week pilot shows consumers are willing part of a zero-waste system if given a dedicated bin for disposable coffee cups.

The pilot in Australia mirrors similar efforts worldwide to divert more coffee cups from landfill. This summer, companies including McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, and the British coffee chains Caffé Nero and Costa announced a “paper cup manifesto” that promised to increase paper cup recycling rates.

One company seizing opportunity from this pledge is Frugalpac, which manufactures paper cups with easily-removable plastic liners inside. After the liner is removed during processing, the paper can be recycled up to seven times, mostly to create newsprint, the company says. Meanwhile, coffee chain Costa says it will accept coffee cups at any of its U.K. locations in order to boost recycling efforts.

Certainly, there is nowhere for these cups’ recycling rates to go but up: The Times of London suggested earlier this year that only 1 in 400 coffee cups is recycled.

Image credit: David Atkinson/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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