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How do I separate and recycle disposable coffee cups?

With only one in 400 disposable coffee cups recycled, and many of those not suitable for recycling anyway, it is estimated that the UK’s use of 2.5 billion paper coffee cups each year, makes a significant contribution to environmental damage. Offices and individuals are in a powerful position to make a change in this small but significant area of waste management, which begs the question – how can you separate and recycle coffee cups?

In this article we look at the environmental impact of coffee cups, the different types that are available, and how you can change and influence habits in your workplace to dispose of them responsibly with behaviour changes and dedicated coffee cup recycling bins.


Clear Waste streams to help with separation and recycling of disposable cups


The environmental impact of disposable coffee cups

According to research from product-testing company Intertek, it is estimated that the use of disposable coffee cups in the UK alone contributes to pollution and environmental damage in the following ways:

  • Production uses 1.45 billion litres of water each year
  • 1.03 million trees are felled each year 
  • The carbon footprint of those going to landfill is 152,000 tonnes of CO2e, the equivalent of 33,300 cars

On a global level the estimated 500 billion cups world wide use: 

  • 290 billion litres of water each year 
  • 206.3 million trees each year 
  • The carbon footprint of those going to landfill is over 30.4 million tonnes, the CO2 equivalent of providing electricity to 5,155,366 households

Further research from Eunomia Research and Consulting, reported in the government’s Environmental Audit, notes: “the total annual coffee cup waste in the UK is enough to fill London’s Royal Albert Hall”. The report continues, saying: “Eunomia estimates that around 4% of disposable coffee cups are littered, equating to 500,000 each day.”


What are disposable coffee cups made of?

To understand how we can minimise the negative environmental impact of disposable coffee cups, we have to first appreciate what we’re dealing with. While on the face of it, coffee cups seem recyclable as they are largely made of paper, they are usually lined with plastic polyethylene to make them waterproof and to ensure they comply with health and safety requirements. These layers are bonded together under a high heat.

However, while that use of mixed materials might make disposable coffee cups safer for us to use, it also renders them difficult to recycle. They require specialist facilities, which are not available with most local authorities. The Confederation of Paper Industries says that “paper cups cannot be regarded as generally recyclable.” 

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups report says: “there are currently only three recycling facilities in the UK which have the ability to recycle coffee cups; James Cropper PLC, ACE UK and Veolia.”

Those facilities require coffee cups to be separated from other recycling at collection so they can be sent to appropriate facilities. If they are simply placed alongside other paper recycling waste, they will most likely not be recycled and will end up in landfill.

The other barrier to recycling coffee cups is the contamination issue. A lot of paper recyclers in the UK will not take any food packaging that has had contact with food or drink, which obviously takes the issue beyond coffee cups.

Disposable cups are classed as ‘prohibited material’ by the UK’s manufacturing standard for the paper industry, and therefore cannot be used to create new food packaging, which is often created at paper mills. Therefore, premises need dedicated coffee cup recycling bins in addition to plastic recycling bins and paper recycling bins.


What can you do to limit the environmental impact of coffee cups?

Businesses are in a great position to influence responsible waste management through a combination of systems, recycling bins for the office and raising environmental awareness. Here are a few of the top recommended actions you can take:


Create a culture of environmental awareness at work

Improving your company’s sustainability efforts and working towards Net Zero begins with a culture of environmental awareness. That starts at the top and can be written into both internal and external communications, ensuring your team knows what you are doing and how they can get involved. Basic administrative efforts such as making sure team members are aware of the different recycling bins for the office, where they are and how to use them are fundamental. Providing information on the impact of small tasks can also be a motivating factor.


Avoid disposable coffee cups

Provide facilities for reuse. In our article on Workplace Recycling: Legislation & Government Guidelines, we wrote about the three ‘R’s: reuse, recycle, recover. In the primary instance, reuse is always the gold standard approach to sustainability and waste management. What can you do to minimise the use of disposable coffee cups in your offices and with your team? Can you provide coffee making facilities with reusable cups, for example, so that team members don’t have to purchase at local coffee shops. Perhaps you could provide your own reusable branded coffee cups for team members to carry with them.


Provide and use designated coffee cup recycling bins 

As a responsible employer you can create processes for sending disposable coffee cups used by your team or in your office to dedicated recycling facilities to keep them out of landfill and avoid littering. However, it’s essential to keep the cups separate from other waste and recycling at the point of collection. Understanding the challenges that businesses and society face when it comes to disposing of coffee cups responsibly, we developed the Unisort Cup Collector Recycling bin. Sleek, smart and safe, it’s clearly labelled and allows you to separate coffee cups from other paper waste to ensure it’s possible to recycle.


Unisort Cup Collector


Partner with businesses that have in-store coffee cup recycling bins

Several coffee shop chains in the UK have recently launched in-store coffee cup recycling bins or return and reward recycling machines. Starbucks and Costa Coffee, the UK’s two largest coffee shop chains, established in-store coffee cup recycling bins in early 2017. They collect the returned disposable cups and send them to a dedicated coffee cup recycling facility.


Explore recyclable coffee cup alternatives

There are people beginning to manufacture alternative solutions to traditional coffee cups with a view to ensuring that they are recyclable. Options that are currently gaining traction are the Frugal Cup, which claims to be “the only paper cup that can be recycled as part of the mainstream waste process and is made from recycled paper (96%) and a PE liner (4%).” Other options include recyclable and compostable bio paper cups, bioplastic coffee cups and seaweed coffee cups. If you decide to go for one of these alternatives, make sure you investigate thoroughly first to make sure the option you work with and the manufacturer you choose is as green as it appears to be on first impressions.


Spread the word about coffee cup recycling

In addition to internal communications, educating your customer base and sharing information to inform individuals empowers them and improves your sustainability credentials through your extended network. It’s also a great boost to your marketing messages – multiple surveys, including a pivotal one from Deloitte, found that 75% of consumers recycle and/or compost at home, and 40% choose to shop with brands that have environmentally sustainable practices/values.

Customers tend to want to be sustainable, but often come up against conflicting messaging. As discussed, coffee cups look like they’re just paper cups, so surely they’re recyclable? In addition, the Mobius Loop Symbol is often applied to the sleeves of coffee cups, pertaining to the recyclable nature of the sleeve itself, but this often gets conflated with the cup’s own recyclable properties. 

As a business you can use your position to inform, generate conversation around your workplace sustainability practices and educate to make responsible waste management easier for individuals.  We all want to live a greener life, and your choices as a business can help make that happen.


Explore Unisan’s range of recycling bins for the office to get your businesses closer to its sustainability goals.




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