Recycling Fallacy

Recycling Fallacy

10 July, 2017
of Paper Coffee Cups
We are led to think coffee cups are recyclable, but most of them are not.

We are led to think coffee cups are recyclable, but most of them are not. The truth is, chain coffee shops like Starbucks set up coffee cup recycling bins in their shops without telling us their cups are, in fact, not recyclable. Behind the façade of a paper cup, the thin layer of 100 per cent oil-based polyethylene plastic lining inside the cups makes it impossible to recycle as it clogs most recycled paper mills' machinery. According to a report and Starbucks' admission, four billion Starbucks coffee cups go to waste and 16 billion end up in the landfill, every year.

Not living up to recycling goals

In 2008, the coffee giant pledged to transition to using 100 per cent recyclable cups; however, the report shows that Starbucks' cups are far from being entirely recyclable. The company's previous goal to provide sufficient incentives for 25 per cent of its customers to use recyclable cups by 2015 results in encouraging only 5 per cent of its customers to bring their personal tumblers.

Starbucks appears to be trying. The company has held three Cup Summits in 2009, 2010 and 2011. After the first Summit, it sounded as if it was attempting to divert attention to recycling infrastructure. It wrote on its website, "When we started on the journey, we felt that the cup material was the key contributor to recyclability. But as we’ve learned more, we now believe that the improvement of local recycling infrastructures and commercial markets for used paper and plastics will ultimately drive recyclability."

The result from the second Summit was more promising: Starbucks started sending used cups from its Chicago stores to a Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they were used to make napkin paper for Starbucks and other customers. However, whether any technological breakthrough was achieved was not announced.

Its final Cup Summit in 2011 forged Starbucks a strategic business collaboration with Foodservice Packaging Institute to form the Paper Recovery Alliance (PRA), which is "taking a systematic look at how to develop and promote the recovery and processing of single-use cups and other used paper foodservice packaging".

Introducing recyclable coffee cups

In 2016, one year after Starbucks' promise to use 100 per cent recyclable cup expired, it announced the trial of recyclable Frugalpac cups in its UK shops.
These cups look and function identical to a conventional coffee cup. Instead of using virgin paperboards, Frugalpac cups are made with recycled paperboards with a thin film liner designed to separate easily from the paper in the recycling process. Unlike the current Starbucks cups—since the interior plastic lining comes off easily—Frugalpac cups can be recycled in any waste paper streams.

Simple re-engineering of coffee cups to make the plastic lining come off more easily during the recycling process goes a long way to change the landscape of coffee cup recycling. We are glad that Starbucks has introduced the new green cup sleeves called EarthSleeve™; that Pacific Coffee's cups for cold drinks are made from 100 per cent compostable corn complex; and that own Tim Hortons chains have their in-store recycling program. But we should not give up on inventing the perfect 100 per cent recyclable coffee cups.

By: Angela Ng


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