paper coffee cups on a table.
Paper Coffee Cup Disposal

Paper Coffee Cup Disposal and Recycling

Paper coffee cups are everywhere – from high street coffee chains to supermarkets, vending machines in office kitchens, and festivals. For businesses they provide a quick, convenient, safe, and hygienic way to serve up hot drinks. However, for the environment they can have a negative impact unless disposed of properly.

Whether you regularly grab a cup of coffee on the way to work or run a business that uses lots of paper cups, it’s important that you dispose of them in a safe and environmentally friendly way. Learn all about how to dispose of and recycle coffee cups in this guide.

Paper coffee cup
disposal FAQs

  • Who invented paper coffee cups?

    Paper coffee cups were first invented in 1907 by Boston lawyer Lawrence Lullen. He created them as a solution to reduce communicable diseases spread at water fountains. 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. In 1984 the lid was first lifted to leave space for all the foam of frothy coffees such as cappuccinos.

  • What are disposable coffee cups made of?

    The outer layer of disposable coffee cups is usually made of paperboard, while the inner layer is made from a plastic-coated layer of paperboard. To allow a paper cup to contain food or drink, it can’t currently be made of recycled material.

    However, the plastic can be made from renewable plant-based materials to reduce its environmental footprint. The paperboard can be made from wood that’s FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, or recycled paper to reduce the environmental impact from the paper itself.

  • How are paper cups made?

    Paper cups are made in a few steps:

    • Paperboard is created from wood pulp. This is rolled on a mesh screen to remove excess water and smoothed into a flat sheet.
    • It’s then coated with plastic, and any logos, writing, or other branding designs are printed onto it.
    • Finally, it’s machine-cut and folded into the cup shape ready for use.
  • Can paper coffee cups be recycled?

    Yes, but it’s complicated. Recycling coffee cups can be a difficult process as the laminated paperboard is hard to separate into paper and plastic. Due to the plastic coating, disposable coffee cups are not recyclable with normal paper recycling. The 5% plastic content means they’re unable to be broken into pulp, which can be reused to make more paper.

    However, you can recycle used paper coffee cups at some recycling centres in their food and drinks carton banks. In some cases, you can also return them where you bought the coffee, and they’ll recycle your used paper coffee cup too. Plus, there are four recycling facilities in the UK that collect paper cups and can recycle them due to their alternative recycling technology:

    • James Cropper
    • D S Smith
    • ACE UK
    • Essity
  • How should you dispose of paper coffee cups?

    Even though they’re tricky to recycle, you should not throw paper cups away with your general waste. This leads the majority to end up in landfill or be incinerated, further increasing their carbon footprint. Instead, check if your local recycling centre accepts paper cups and take them there for recycling.

    If not, you can take used paper cups to many retailers and high street coffee chains that are part of the National Cup Recycling Scheme. They’ll collect your cups and take them to a recycling facility able to separate the plastic and paper to properly recycle them. Some of the big names that are part of the scheme include:

    • Costa Coffee
    • McDonald’s
    • Pret a Manger
    • Caffè Nero
    • Greggs
  • How are paper cups recycled?

    To recycle paper cups the process is generally as follows:

    • Paper cups are collected, sorted, and sometimes baled or simply transported in bulk to a recycling facility.
    • Here they’re put into a pulper with water and the paper fibres and polyethylene layer are separated.
    • The strong paper fibres can be recycled into other paper products up to six times, while the polyethylene can be used to make new plastic products.
  • Do paper coffee cups degrade?

    Most paper cups do degrade but it can take more than 20 years due to the polyethylene coating. When left to rot in landfill, the chemicals used in the plastic coating can leach into the ground and contaminate nearby water too – which is why recycling is so important.

    There are more biodegradable coffee cups being introduced though, which may take between three and five months to degrade.

  • What are the alternatives to paper cups?

    The main alternative to paper coffee cups is reusable cups. While this initially seems better, it’s not always realistic for people to bring their own cup every time they want a hot drink. There are also associated health risks with improper washing and they’re not as environmentally friendly as they seem – you need between 100 and 250 uses before they’re better than a single-use cup.

    One suggested alternative is to create a paper cup without waterproofing, then attach a separate plastic food-grade liner that’s 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 more easily.

    Some paper coffee 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 plastic-coated versions though, which can limit recycling options.

  • What are some facts about paper coffee cups?

    A few facts about paper coffee cups are that:

    • The UK uses more than 5 billion paper cups a year, and this number is increasing.
    • Unfortunately, only one in 400 paper cups are recycled in the UK.
    • The government has a target to recycle all single-use coffee cups by 2023. If this isn’t achieved, they’ll consider banning them.
  • Where can you recycle paper coffee cups for free?

    Some high street coffee shops and food outlets offer the option to return your paper coffee cup for recycling – including McDonald’s, Costa Coffee, Pret a Manger, and Caffè Nero. Check with your local council, as there are also household waste recycling centres with food and drink carton banks that will accept coffee cups for free and send them for recycling.

Learn about more 
waste types

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