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Your Paper Coffee Cup Isn’t Actually Recyclable

Information obtained by The Times this week shows that fewer than one in 400 coffee cups handed out by Britain’s coffee chains are recycled—despite their claims of being “100 percent recyclable.”
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB

Blame it on the Olsen twins or that weird Starbucks obsession we all had in the 90s, but striding around clutching a takeaway coffee cup is a failsafe way of letting the world know you're an incredibly busy and stylish person who simply must have their caffeine fix made portable (so as not to interfere with their busy and stylish schedule, duh). That or you're trying to hide a hangover behind sunglasses and an oversized macchiato.


Ordering coffee "to go" may seem like a fairly harmless—if slightly annoying—habit, but it could be having a disastrous impact on the environment. Yep, even if you're putting your used paper cups in the recycling bin afterwards.

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Information obtained by The Times this week shows that fewer than one in 400 coffee cups handed out by Britain's high street coffee chains are being recycled.

As the newspaper reports, around 7 million paper coffee cups are used in the UK every day, amounting to 2.5 billion a year.

But according to Simply Cup, the country's only paper cup recycling service, fewer than 3 million of these were recycled last year. This is because coffee cups must be sent to specialist facilities to have their plastic laminate removed before they can be recycled. Only two such facilities—one in Kendal and one in Halifax—exist in the UK.

Not that you would know this from looking at the paper cups given out by Britain's high street coffee shops. Cups from Costa—the country's biggest chain—show the three arrow recycling symbol, as do the cardboard sleeves that accompany Pret A Manger and Caffè Nero cups, which also state that they are "100 percent recyclable" and "100 percent recycled" respectively. Although these claims refer to the paper sleeves, which can be reused, anti-waste campaigners say that customers are mislead into believing it applies to the cup as well.


As for Starbucks, which operates 760 shops in the UK, the official website states: "We have set a goal to make 100 percent of our cups reusable or recyclable by 2015."

Simply Cups founder Peter Goodwin told The Times that many consumers have no idea how few coffee cups are actually recycled. This year, their facilities are expected to process 6 million cups, which is less than the amount produced in a single day.

He said: "It's dramatically less than 1 percent but no one knows this. The consumer has trust in the brand that if they put a recycling sign on a cup then that product is being recycled. People are being misled."

Costa responded to these accusations by saying that it is "researching how best to work with the waste industry to ensure our 100 percent recyclable cups are being recycled effectively" and Pret states that "most of our coffee cups are disposed of outside of our shops and we are working with other companies within the industry to find ways to improve the recovery and recycling rates of takeaway cups."

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Starbucks wasn't able to say what proportion of its cups were recycled but that a "combination of approaches" was being explored to improve this.

But Goodwin thinks Britain's coffee shop chains could do more to show customers exactly how environmentally friendly (or not) their cups are. He said: "People are getting fed up with environmental stories and greenwash. We see a great cry in the marketplace for transparency. We need to tell people where the material is going to and what it is being made into."

Maybe it's time we took off the sunglasses and started drinking our hot beverages from china mugs again.