Can takeaway cup spill stoppers be recycled?

Janice Kanniah
November 11, 2022
Can takeaway cup spill stoppers be recycled?

Takeaway coffee is one of life’s greatest pleasures and conveniences. However, it can be accompanied by annoying, and potentially serious, spills. 

A best-case scenario for coffee spills would be dampening the cardboard cup sleeve or consumers’ clothing. The worst-case scenario may involve unpleasant burns or scalds. 

This is why many coffee shops now offer customers a “spill stopper” with their takeaway coffee cups. Essentially, these inventions temporarily plug the hole in the lid of a takeaway cup, keeping the coffee from spilling and helping to retain heat until the consumer is ready to drink it.

That said, spill stoppers are a relatively new addition to the takeaway coffee cups accessory arsenal, and the majority are made using traditional plastics. 

Additionally, a strong focus has been placed on the recyclability of takeaway coffee cups and their various accessories in recent years. 

Therefore, there are many factors roasters and coffee shops need to consider when deciding whether to invest in takeaway cup spill stoppers.

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An image of sustainable straws beside plastic coffee cup spill stoppers on a barista counter in an article on whether takeaway cup spill stoppers can be recycled

Do coffee consumers need spill stoppers?

While burns as a result of coffee spills are rare, they can happen. 

In the USA alone, customers have sued several businesses for selling coffee in “weak” cups or with an improperly secured lid. These have led to customers sustaining painful, if not life-changing burns. 

The most infamous legal case involving spilt coffee took place in 1992, where a customer sustained third-degree burns while removing the lid of her takeaway coffee. 

Children are especially vulnerable to burning themselves this way. In the UK, over 50,000 children visited a hospital to treat a burn over the past year, with hot drinks accounting for 60% of cases in children under three years.

While it is unlikely baristas are serving coffee at dangerously high temperatures, they may still want to take precautions to avoid wasteful and annoying spills.

In 2016, a study was conducted on the physical properties of the fluid-structure interaction of the coffee cup. 

The study revealed spills occur due to resonance and that the only way to prevent this motion from occurring is to change the way people walk or the way the cup is held. 

Using a cup that is more narrow or slightly taller, or topping the drink with a thick layer of foam may prevent spills. However, using a spill stopper seems to be a more practical solution. 

An image of sustainable takeaway coffee cups made from unbleached kraft paper next to renewable coffee stirrers and spill stoppers made from bamboo  in an article on whether takeaway cup spill stoppers can be recycled

What are spill stoppers?

Louise Harpman and Scott Specht are authors of the book Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture

The book states that “our modern world has made it increasingly difficult not to spill. Cities are more crowded than ever before. More people are moving more regularly, farther and at faster speeds. They are doing so with drinks in their hands.”

Coffee cup lids were invented to help prevent spills, reaching the market in the 1970s to help drivers safely consume drinks purchased from drive-thrus. 

Traditionally, in order to drink the coffee without removing the lid, consumers would peel away small sections of the lid to make a mouth size opening. 

Designers took note and responded with dozens of different lid designs, each promising to prevent spills and create a more convenient drinking experience. 

Designers concerned with “slosh prevention” have tried inventing resealable lids with an on-and-off switch or rotating section that covers the hole. However, these options can be expensive to produce and few customers choose a coffee shop based on their lids. 

As a result, many businesses settled on using coffee cup lid plugs, also known as splash sticks or spill stoppers. US coffee giant Starbucks debuted the use of spill stoppers in 2008.

Today, many coffee shops use these plugs for their low cost, compatibility with a range of takeaway cup lids, and ease of use. 

Some manufacturers even claim spill stoppers may be able to retain up to 40% of the coffee’s heat. 

Coffee shops also have the option to customise the colour and shape of spill stoppers, which can leave an impression on customers and set the business apart from its competitors.

An image of a barista handing a takeaway coffee cup with sensory lid to consumer  in an article on whether takeaway cup spill stoppers can be recycled

Are spill stoppers recyclable? 

While individual manufacturers may offer environmentally friendly options, the most common material used to make spill stoppers is plastic. 

This creates issues for many reasons. More customers are aware of the fact that the majority of takeaway coffee cups end up in landfills or are not recycled despite being made from materials such as paper. 

This is because this material is often lined with plastic to ensure the drink does not seep through the cup and comprise its integrity. 

Many coffee shops can find themselves stocking cups, sleeves and even lids made from different materials. While this might not seem like a problem, it can be for customers. 

The average coffee consumer is unlikely to have time to research what each material is made of and how it should be disposed of. 

Furthermore, they are less likely to seek out multiple bins to dispose of each one if this takes time or requires them to go out of their way. 

Therefore, roasters and coffee shops must consider the local communities’ recycling and collection schemes. For instance, it these schemes are limited, it may be better to invest in bamboo stir sticks, which can double as spill stoppers.

An image of recyclable coffee packaging made from kraft paper and multilayer LDPE coffee bags with kraft paper takeaway coffee cups  in an article on whether takeaway cup spill stoppers can be recycled

Alternatively, baristas can forgo spill stoppers altogether and use larger takeaway coffee cups. These takeaway cups should be made of the same materials as the lid and sleeve and feature clear instructions on how each component can be disposed of and recycled.

Roasters and baristas are also able to select lids that are specifically designed to prevent spills while enhancing the flavours and aromas of the coffee.

For instance, sensory lids are designed to prevent spilling while enhancing their coffee drinking experience. It does this without stopping up the lid hole, allowing consumers to enjoy the coffee’s aroma while it is consumed. 

Spill stoppers can be a handy option for coffee drinkers, but they can also be a contributor to plastic waste, unless roasters choose one made of recyclable or degradable materials, such as bamboo fibre. 

Until these options become widely available, roasters can choose to invest in takeaway coffee cup lids that perform double duty so that customers are not confused about how to dispose of different materials. 

MTPak Coffee offers roasters and coffee shops a range of SensoryLids, which are specifically designed so customers can enjoy the full aroma of your takeaway coffee without spillages. 

Our SensoryLid’s were designed with the help of cupping experts and barista champions and allows consumers to continue receiving the coffee’s aroma thanks to an innovative sensory hole.

Our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable materials such as PET or kraft paper with an environmentally friendly PLA lining and are available in three sizes: 8oz, 12oz, and 16oz.

Our takeaway coffee cups are strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable, and can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature your brand logo or recycling instructions. 

We also offer a range of low minimum order quantity (MOQ) options. This means you can order as few as 500 fully customised units in just five working days.

For more information on custom-printed, sustainable takeaway coffee cups, contact our team. 

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