You Are Recycling (Even) Less Than You Think You Are

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
You Are Recycling (Even) Less Than You Think You Are

image by: Hat4Rain

There's more to recycling than meets the eye. The paper coffee cup, for example. Looks recyclable, right? Relatively environmentally-friendly? Nuh-uh.

You know that reusable containers are better than recyclable ones. You know that recyclable containers are better than non-recyclable single-use containers. You may even know that most recycling is downcycling (not as good as upcycling, but better than nothing—and worse, of course, than reuse).

What you very well may not know is that some of those seemingly recyclable products that you use when you've forgotten to bring a reusable cup or neglected to make sure that your barista served your "for here" order in ceramic or glass are not recyclable at all.

No product may better exemplify this problem than the humble paper coffee cup. At first glance this wouldn't seem to be one of the worst offenders in the world of non-reusable containers. Unlike plastic, paper won't ultimately sit in a landfill for 1,000 years leaching nasty chemicals into the soil and water table, right?

Well, however true that part of the story may be, the total plot is far more complicated. But putting aside all of the somewhat esoteric arguments about whether paper or plastic products—or, for that matter, reusable products like ceramic and glass—ultimately have more or less overall negative environmental impact than each other, there's one aspect of the average paper coffee cup that is quite straightforward: it isn't recyclable at all.

That's because almost every such cup you're likely to encounter—at Starbucks, for example—is lined with plastic, a feature that helps the paper on the outside from getting soggy or extra hot, but destines the cup for the landfill and not the recycling plant. Worse yet, according to CNN Money, is that the lining means each such cup takes 20 years to decompose. And with 60 billion such cups going into landfills each year in the U.S. alone, you don't need an advanced degree in math or environmental science to see how this doesn't add up well for Mother Nature.

This problem was pretty much under the radar until March 2016, when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a celebrity chef in the United Kingdom, started a campaign to raise awareness and put pressure on Starbucks and other businesses using such cups. "The coffee companies are taking advantage of the public’s false confidence in their responsible actions," he said. "They are actively encouraging the misunderstanding, with claims and statements on their Websites." He took Starbucks in particular to task for their false claim that the company had a goal to "make 100 per cent of [their] cups reusable or recyclable by 2015," even though the company was not client of Simply Cups, the only company in the U.K. equipped to recycle single-use paper coffee cups.

The attention that Fearnley-Whittingstall generated resulted in June 2016's "Paper Cup Manifesto." With an objective that "the greater majority of the UK population will have access to information, schemes and facilities that enable used paper cups to be sustainably recovered and recycled" by 2020, numerous organizations across the paper-cup supply chain—including 30 coffee vendors, such as Starbucks—pledged "to work together to ensure paper cups are designed, used, disposed of and collected to maximise the opportunities for recycling by further investment and funding of recycling, disposal and collection projects."

While that sounds nice, compliance with the specifics or spirit of the Manifesto is completely voluntary; and 2020 is still over 150 billion non-recyclable cups away (in the U.S. alone). Moreover, it may be telling that Starbucks—far and away the world's largest coffee chain (and therefore biggest purveyor of the offending cups)—makes no mention of the Manifesto on even the "Recycling and Reducing Waste" page of its Website.

Some of what Starbucks does say there, however, is germane to the issues in question. "For recycling to be successful, local municipalities, landlords, customers, baristas, and even adjacent businesses all have to work together to keep recyclable materials out of the landfill and non-recyclable materials out of recycling bins," the company says. "[…] Not only are there municipal barriers to successful recycling in many cities, but it takes significant changes in behavior to get it right. A few non-recyclable items in a recycle bin can render the entire bag unrecyclable to the hauler. […] Additionally, in many of our stores landlords control the waste collection and decide whether or not they want to provide recycling. These challenges require recycling programs be customized to each store and market and may limit our ability to offer recycling in some stores."

In short, recycling is a big, complicated picture. But to whatever degree knowledge is power, the more you know, the more you can do to keep our world as green as possible. And every coffee cup counts.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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