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Disposable coffee cups are a major contributor to pollution in landfills. This isn’t just rhetoric. Coffee drinkers toss billions of coffee cups into trash buckets annually, and from there, they make their way to landfills, where they can take up to 30 years to biodegrade. Just how bad is this problem? According to various sources, Americans throw out about 25 billion coffee cups a year, Australians toss 1 billion disposable paper cups (making them the second-biggest contributor to solid waste, right after plastic bottles), and the ubiquitous Starbucks coffee chain goes through 4 billion disposable paper coffee cups each year.
In the UK, coffee shops send about 2.5 billion disposable cups to the landfill, and the Daily Mail recently reported that the House of Commons alone tosses out about 650,000 paper cups annually. According to the paper, which has mounted a major campaign to convince coffee shops to bring in recyclable cups, Parliament justifies continuing their wasteful coffee ways by citing the cost – an additional £40,000 per year to switch over to biodegradable or recyclable coffee cups. This, despite the fact that many politicians have been openly supportive of the Mail’s Curb the Cup campaign to reduce the number of disposable cups sent to incinerators and landfills.
Labour MP Mary Creagh, head of the Environmental Scrutiny Committee, said that the committee will be looking into the use of disposable coffee cups as part of their overall investigation into the use of non-recyclable paper and plastic. She notes that the House of Commons should be setting a better example on the issue of waste reduction.
There are two types of disposable coffee cups in general use: polystyrene (Styrofoam™) cups, and paper cups lined with PET. Standard hot cups, the to-go coffee cups, are made with three layers – the other paper, a corrugated inner layer, and the plastic lining that keeps the cup rigid and prevents the hot liquid from seeping through. The combination of three materials means that the cups can’t be handled by recycling centers. The only two options are sending them to the incinerator or to the landfill. According to recycling experts, the paper parts of the cups degrade relatively quickly, but the PET lining remains in the soil much longer.
What’s Being Done About Throwaway Coffee Cups
Currently, there are a number of short-term ways to reduce the amount of coffee cup waste making its way to landfills. Costco and Starbucks, for example, each offer incentives for people to bring their own refillable coffee cups. Starbucks gives a 25p discount to customers who bring their own cups, and Costco donates 25p to environmental charities for the same. Smaller coffee shops and chains have similar initiatives.
In-store recycling schemes and reusable cups are only short-term solutions, however. Customers like the convenience of takeaway cups, and since that’s unlikely to change, disposable coffee cups have to change. That’s a challenge that’s being taken seriously through a few different avenues. Starbucks, for example, launched a trial of 100% recyclable coffee cups last July. The cups, designed and created by UK-based Frugalpac, are lined with a thin film that separates easily from the paper during the recycling process. The paper can then be recycled through normal methods. According to the company, the cups can be recycled up to seven times, making a huge dent in the number of disposable coffee cups that end up in landfills.
Martin Myerscough, the founder of Frugalpac, is currently in discussion with other major chains and hopes that many of them will adopt the recyclable coffee cups over the next year.