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Why Coffee Cups Can’t be Recycled

Ever heard companies market their coffee cups as recyclable? Compostable even? Well, let’s talk about that.

Shouldn’t it be better if you support a company that is using more “environmentally friendly packaging”? It seems like there’s so much information out there, but until you really start digging, it can be kinda hard to find! 

What’s the big deal with coffee cups, and why can’t they be recycled? Well, simply put.. They aren’t made of pure cardboard. 

Have you ever wondered why you can’t recycle your starbucks cups? Turns out there is a fairly simple answer. Most coffee cups are in fact made up of cardboard, but they are lined on the inside with a coat of plastic. Which makes sense, otherwise we’d all be cupping our coffee in our palms.

If you were to sit your coffee cup outside, and come back to it a couple months later, you’d be left with a thin plastic liner, fully intact. Even then, you may say, can’t plastic be recycled?

Well, turns out it’s a pretty hard thing for recycling companies to separate the lining of your cup from the cardboard outer shell, meaning that the cups don’t get recycled at all- they can’t go in the cardboard, or the plastic. Most actually end up in landfills.

Some disposable cups are made with wax liners, instead of plastic- but figuring out which cup is which is a difficult process for most recycling companies. 

So, don’t through your disposable coffee cups in the blue bin and just hope for the best. A non-recyclable cup could contaminate a whole bin full of perfectly good recyclables- meaning everything ends up in the landfill.

But, I thought there were such things as compostable cups? There is a big question mark around recycling vs. composting. What exactly is the difference between them, and how to we figure out what the best thing to choose is?

1. Compostable packaging including PLA hot cups are made with a bioplastic lining.

In some cases it is made from plants which does reduce the use of fossil fuels, however, it is still a polymer, contrary to claims by suppliers describing PLA as made from plants not plastic.

2. PLA packaging will only compost under specific conditions.

These conditions are only present at commercial composting facilities, which are very limited. There are only minimal commercial composting facilities that accept compostable matter- and none of them are in Fredericton. 

3. Bioplastic lined products such as compostable cups cannot be recycled in the paper and cardboard recycling stream.

Due to the limitations with separating the lining from the paper fibre3. 

4. PLA cups are NOT engineered to break down in home composting environments.

Due to the limited commercial infrastructure and acceptance, the majority of compostable coffee cups still end up in landfill, the last estimate was that less than 1% of bioplastics (such as PLA) actually make it into commercial composting. The 1% that does get composted, is broken down and made into mulch which is the end of its lifecycle. The quality of this mulch is in question due to lack of complete breakdown of PLA products and there is growing concern of the risk of microplastics in mulch products.

5. In landfill, the paper component of paper-and-bioplastic coffee cups breaks down, releasing greenhouse gases including methane.

And as above, the bioplastic components are engineered to never break down. Bioplastic also behaves exactly the same as conventional plastics when they enter the ecosystem including the marine environment.

So, without the proper system in place to collect the compostable matter and a facility to process the compostable matter, why are we kidding ourselves into thinking we are making a difference in this giant problem. The solution cannot fall on the consumer. We are doing our best to navigate, be conscious and aware, and continue to bring our reusable cups whenever we can.

What can we do?

This is the ultimate solution. BRING. YOUR. OWN. CUP. It’s sometimes annoying, sometimes you forget, sometimes you end up with 4 unclean coffee mugs in your car… but it’s worth it! The difference this makes is ginormous. YOU should feel proud when you remember to bring your own mug, you’ve decided that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

I live my life with one simple motto. In a world where it is hard to know if you’re ever doing the right thing anymore, or if you’re making a difference, or hearing the truth.. Say this sentence: “Good, Better, or Best”. I heard this a while back when Alex and I attended a farming course by Foods Good Farm (check them out!). We were so overwhelmed by the thought of quitting our job, starting a permaculture farm, making huge decisions that we didn’t know much about. But, we knew that we wanted to make a difference, even if it was small. To be good humans, to be kind, and to laugh a lot.

Make a difference. 

So, everytime we find ourselves trying to make a difference, or an improvement and we start to beat ourselves up that it’s not enough we say “Good, Better, or Best”. Maybe you remembered your coffee cup on your morning walk on Saturday- GOOD! Don’t sweat that you maybe forgot it twice that week. Maybe the following month, you make coffee at home all month- BETTER! Heck yes, you’re making a difference. Do you see? Don’t sweat it. As long as you’re trying, and continue trying, you do not have to be perfect. Life isn’t about being perfect, it’s about making a difference, in a way that’s best for you!

Ask more questions about your recycling areas.

Start a conversation about why we don’t have a composting facility here in our community. Do your part to try to keep coffee cup waste down! It’s a small sacrifice that makes an MASSIVE difference.

And don’t sweat the small stuff, life’s too short. 

Be kind, and laugh a lot.