Why is it so difficult to recycle single-use cups? And why aren’t more people switching to reusable alternatives?
Why is recycling single-use coffee cups so difficult?

Many takeaway coffee cups are made from petroleum-based plastics like styrofoam and polypropylene, or polyethylene-coated paper. These materials retain heat well and prevent leakage, making them a perfect choice. However, single-use cups are resource-intensive to produce. It’s estimated that 20-million trees and 12-billion gallons of water are used to make paper cups every year in the US alone. And while plastic cups use fewer natural resources to produce, they are considerably more energy-intensive to manufacture.

Both styrofoam and polypropylene are affordable and readily available to manufacturers, but they are difficult to recycle. Paper cups also pose a challenge, as they need to be treated for the plastic lining to be removed. Again, the lack of access to recycling facilities and high recycling costs make it difficult to minimise the waste associated with single-use cups.

Thanks to a broader lack of recycling incentives, an estimated half a trillion single-use coffee cups are sent to landfill every year around the world. Once disposed of, styrofoam and polypropylene cups take up to 450 years to degrade, while plastic-lined cups will take around 30 years to decompose. When these materials break down, they release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Plastics also break down into microplastics, which spread across the planet and contaminate our air, soil, and water – harming wildlife and the environment. And while their impact on human health is relatively unknown, scientists estimate we each consume 100,000 microplastic particles every year.

Coffee cups can be made from biodegradable and compostable materials, which break down into their base components over time. However, there are some notable differences between the two terms. Compostable cups are biodegradable, but a biodegradable material is not always compostable.

Materials that are biodegradable can break down into their composite elements over time. In contrast, compostable matter decomposes over a set timeframe into organic compounds, known as “humus”. This then provides nutrients to the surrounding environment.

Furthermore, these systems only work when consumers are informed that cups are compostable or biodegradable, and have access to appropriate disposal facilities.

In Europe, most municipal waste ends up in landfills (24%) or is 333incinerated (27%). Less than half is recycled (31%) and even less composted (17%). When a consumer doesn’t or can’t compost their cups, they end up in a landfill.

In the appropriate conditions, industrial-compostable materials are required under EU law to break down within 12 weeks, and completely biodegrade after six months. However, when exposure to oxygen, heat, and airflow is minimised, compostable and biodegradable cups can remain intact for years.

Unlike industrial compost heaps, landfill sites are not controlled or regularly aerated. As a result, microorganisms break down compostable and biodegradable matter anaerobically (without oxygen). When this occurs, the materials release methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Over the past 12 months or so, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed how the global hospitality industry has been able to accept reusable cups. To comply with previously established Covid-safe measures, many cafés exclusively used takeaway cups and utensils, and would refuse to accept customers’ reusable cups.

However, waste production levels have been steadily rising since well before the pandemic. In 1992, China started to import and process recyclable waste from around the world, reaching a level of around 45% over a 26-year period. However, in 2018, the Chinese government banned imports on recyclable waste in order to invest more in the country’s recycling infrastructure. Before the ban, 95% of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union, and 70% in the US were sold and shipped to China.”

When the ban came into play, national recycling facilities in the EU and US became overwhelmed, and companies manufacturing single-use plastics failed to cut down on production to meet their targets.

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