Paper coffee cups disposal and recycling

Created as a solution to reduce communicable diseases spread at water fountains, paper coffee cups were first invented in 1907 by Boston lawyer Lawrence Lullen.

However disposable paper cups we use for hot drinks, including the lid, were first seen in New York in the 1950s as a takeaway option for coffee from 7 Eleven shops. As people’s tastes evolved towards more complicated, frothy coffees, the coffee cup also evolved, lifting the lid in 1984 to leave space for all the foam.

recycle paper cups

So now you know how they were created, but how are they actually made?

Paper cup manufacture

The outer cup layer is usually made out of paperboard, with the inner layer made out of a plastic-coated layer of paperboard. For a paper cup to be allowed to contain food or drink, it can’t currently be made out of recycled material. However, the plastic can be made out of renewable plant-based material to reduce the environmental footprint. The paperboard can be made from wood that is FSC certified, or recycled paper to reduce the environmental impact from the paper itself.

The paperboard is created from wood pulp which is rolled on a mesh screen to remove excess water and smoothed into a flat sheet. It can then be coated with plastic, and any logos/writing printed onto it before being machine-cut and folded into the cup shape.

Paper cup disposal

Sadly, due to the plastic coating on the paper, paper cups are not recyclable in normal paper recycling; the 5% plastic content means they are unable to be broken into pulp which can be reused to make more paper. The UK uses over 2.5 billion paper cups a year, and this number is increasing, so it’s a shame only 1 in 400 of these are recycled. The majority end up in landfills or are incinerated, further increasing their carbon footprint.

The government has set a target to recycle all single-use coffee cups by 2023, and if this isn’t achieved, they will consider banning all single-use coffee cups. Recycling can be a difficult process as the laminated paperboard is very difficult to separate into paper and plastic.

However, there are four recycling facilities in the UK that collect paper cups and can recycle them due to their alternative recycling technology. After collection, the cups are transported in bulk to these facilities, where they are put into a pulper which is able to separate the paper fibres and poly-ethylene layer. The strong paper fibres can be recycled into other paper products as many as six times, and the poly-ethylene can be used to make new plastic products.


One suggested alternative is to create a paper cup without waterproofing, then attach a separate plastic food-grade liner that is easily removed. The cup can be made of recycled paper which itself can be further recycled. This may allow paper cups to be recycled at local recycling centres.

Another option is to use reusable cups instead of paper ones. Whilst this initially seems better, it’s not always realistic to expect people to bring their own cup every time they would like a hot drink. There are also associated health risks with improper washing. They are also not as environmentally friendly as they seem; between 100 and 250 uses are required before they are better than a single-use cup.

Some cups also exist that are made of paper with a wax lining rather than a plastic one; these can be recycled via composting. It can be difficult to tell these apart from the plastic-coated version though, which can limit recycling options.

Where can you recycle them for free?

Some coffee shops on the high street offer the option to return your cup for recycling, including McDonald’s, Costa Coffee, Pret A Manger and Caffe Nero. Some household waste recycling centres offer food and drink carton banks that will accept coffee cups.

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