How can coffee shops ensure takeaway cups are recycled?

Peter Lancashire
July 8, 2022
How can coffee shops ensure takeaway cups are recycled?

Since their introduction in the 1960s, takeaway cups have played an important part in the coffee industry. 

They not only allow coffee shops to offer both in-store and takeaway options, but provide customers with access to specialty coffees on the go. That said, takeaway coffee cups have been thrust into the limelight over recent years, due to concerns over sustainability.  

With only 1 in every 400 takeaway coffee cups being recycled in major consumption countries such as the UK, they pose a significant problem for increasing levels of waste. Furthermore, a 2021 survey of 1,005 US consumers revealed over half are confused about the proper ways to recycle, including what materials are recyclable. 

As a result, coffee shops and baristas have come up with innovative ways to inform customers about recycling takeaway coffee cups. These include investing in compostable or biodegradable takeaway cups, and implementing incentivised return schemes to ensure the cups are properly recycled. 

Read on to find out how coffee shops can ensure their takeaway cups are recycled properly.

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Image of woman placing paper takeaway cup into recycling bin.

Why is recycling coffee cups necessary?

The quality focused coffee industry has made it part of its identity to improve sustainability within the sector. 

That said, British consumers get through an estimated 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups every year. This adds to the waste produced by coffee companies and acts against the increasingly widespread environmental focus found within the industry. 

An independent study done by product-testing company Intertek found almost 1.5 billion litres of water is used when producing takeaway cups the UK uses annually. 

This study measures the environmental impact of producing, using, and disposing of all types of single-use coffee cups. 

Notably, it found a typical cup requires 0.58 litres of water to produce, and has a carbon footprint equivalent to up to 60.9g of carbon dioxide (CO2). 

This suggests that coffee cups in UK landfills produce an annual carbon footprint that is equivalent to 152,000 tonnes of CO2 – similar to what 33,300 cars produce a year. 

As a result, the UK’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee called on the government to set a target to recycle all single-use cups by 2023

Considering the success of the UK’s plastic bag levy, which reduced sales of plastic carrier bags in major retailers by 95%, a surcharge model may also be applied to takeaway cups.

Close up image of recyclable coffee cups made from sustainable materials with plastic lids.

Why can it be difficult to recycle takeaway coffee cups?

While recyclable paper coffee cups are an effective alternative to traditional styrofoam cups, they do pose a few problems. 

The lid of the coffee cup is perhaps the easiest part to recycle, as they are usually made entirely out of recyclable plastic

The problem starts with the way takeaway coffee cups are designed and manufactured. The individual components of the cup are made from paper and cardboard, which are both recyclable. However, it is the way these materials are bonded together that can make them difficult to separate and recycle. 

Single-use take-away coffee cups are often lined with a thin layer of polyethylene to make them waterproof. This lining helps to protect customers by preventing the cup from breaking down while it is in use.

That said, despite the coating making up less than 5% of the total cup, it would be enough to prevent it from being recycled. 

During the recycling process, paper cups are de-pulped and the plastic lining breaks down into flakes. These often clog up the screen that separates paper fibres from other contaminants.

Any plastic that passes through this process may pose issues by melting during the paper rolling process. This can cause the paper to break down, and the entire paper production process to grind to a halt.

As with plastic cups, paper takeaway coffee cups require a specialised facility to remove this coating and process each material separately.

Additionally, some coffee cup manufacturers use wax to line paper cups. That said, this waterproof layer must also be removed before the cup can be processed and used to create a new product.

Unisan is a UK-based company that aims to help organisations promote recycling while maintaining or enhancing operational efficiency. It encourages businesses to introduce cup recycling into the workplace, as it states 88% of the nation would use a purpose-built cup recycling bin if one was available to them.

This is because takeaway coffee cups will not be recycled if they are mixed with other recyclable materials or placed in a paper bin. Coffee cups need a designated bin or waste stream in order for them to be successfully recycled and reprocessed into something new.

Without access to services that provide easy methods to process used coffee cups properly, consumers are often left with two choices. It either goes to a landfill, or is placed in the incorrect recycling bin. This means, at a later stage, it will be separated from the recyclable materials and be moved to a landfill.

Close up image of compostable or biodegradable takeaway coffee cup that reads "packaging made from plants."

How can coffee shops ensure their coffee cups are recycled properly?

In recent years, several companies have developed innovative methods to minimise the impact of single-use food and beverage items. 

Several viable options have become available to help prevent unnecessary waste within the coffee industry. For instance, empty cup exchanges and discounted drinks for customers who bring reusable cups have become popular. 

However, these schemes can make it challenging for coffee shops to use personalised branding, which is an effective marketing tactic. That said, they can counter this by customising recyclable cup sleeves instead

Coffee shops and office spaces are being encouraged to offer their own marked bins for takeaway cups. Doing this can help recycling plants with the appropriate facilities to process the cups and repurpose the materials into new products. 

Additionally, coffee shops can choose to team up with local businesses and encourage customers to return empty takeaway cups to their establishments for proper recycling. 

This includes choosing a company that specialises in collecting and processing used cups, and will provide bins to be used in communal spaces. 

Another option is to adopt a new design of coffee cup. The specialty coffee industry is seeing more options reach the market in the form of 100% recyclable coffee cups. These can be placed in bins alongside general recycling, as the materials do not need to be separated before being processed in a recycling facility. 

An image of a barista serving takeway coffee in takeaway coffee cups in an article  about How can coffee shops ensure takeaway cups are recycled

Businesses across all industries are under immense pressure to lower their carbon footprint. Therefore, finding which areas lead to high levels of waste is essential to improving a company’s sustainability practices. 

Tackling the takeaway cup crisis is not only about reducing the number of cups we use, it’s also about educating consumers on how to manage them once they’ve been used.

AT MTPak Coffee, we have a line of eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups that includes compostable and recyclable options. 

Additionally, our range includes single and double wall cups that are made using fully recyclable materials, all of which can be customised to feature your company’s colours and logo. 

We are able to custom design and digitally print coffee packaging and takeaway cups with just a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time.

We also offer a perfect solution for micro-roasters by providing low minimum order quantities (MOQ) on both recyclable and traditional options.

For more information on sustainable takeaway coffee cups, contact our team

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