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Recycling your cup

Single-use cup? Recycle it.

Recycling your single-use cup allows for the materials from which it's made to be recovered and reused, rather than wasted as litter or in landfill. 

There are many different kinds of single-use cup out there and a lot of confusion around how to dispose of them correctly.

Here is a quick overview of some of the materials and how to best dispose of them so far:

Paper

At present, paper cups are not widely recyclable. The polyethylene (PE) plastic coating on the inside of these cups must be separated from the paper exterior in a specialised process

Unless special recycling facilities are available, they are best put in landfill bins. If they are put in with paper or plastic recycling they will cause contamination, causing the recyclate to be discarded.

So, how do you recycle a paper cup?

At the moment, paper cups can be recycled in many of the major coffee retailers. For example, many Costa, Starbucks and Pret stores will take back any paper cup for recycling.

One of the things that we've worked on as part of Cup Movement is to make paper cup recycling more widely available in Scotland. Read the Cup Movement in Glasgow report to learn more.

Plastic

Plastic cups are commonly made from a type of plastic called polypropolene (PP,#5). Although technically recyclable, not all recycling companies will process them. 

Often, plastic cups must be collected separately. Similar to paper cups, many major coffee retailers will take back clear plastic cups for recycling.

Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is that, if the recycling point accepts plastic tubs, then plastic cups are ok too. However, if unsure, these should be put into general waste to avoid contaminating the recyclate.

Cups made from compostable bioplastics can be recycled in the appropriate composting bin.

Polystyrene cups are not recyclable.

Compostable/biodegradable

Generally made from bio-plastics and other biodegradable materials, these types of cups offer some environmental benefits, assuming that they are disposed of appropriately: they must be collected separately and composted. 

If they end up in landfill they will likely end up degrading anaerobically and releasing methane, just like everything else. They should also not be put in with e.g. plastic or paper recycling, as they will cause contamination.

Although the terms 'compostable' and 'biodegradable' are often used interchangeably, they do not carry the same meaning.

Biodegradation is a natural process where materials are broken down by microorganisms. However, this can take a long time and the by-products will not necessarily be harmless to the environment. Petroleum-based plastics such as polyethylene (PE) can be made 'biodegradable' with the use of additives.

Compostable items, on the other hand, must meet certain specifications around how they biodegrade and what they biodegrade into. They also do not contain petroleum-based materials.

Compostable cups are commonly paper cups with a PLA lining (poly-lactic acid, extracted from renewable resources like corn starch).

The fact is that single-use cups are convenient and deeply embedded in our take-away habits. If we are to reduce cup waste we need both better cup recycling infrastructure and better ways to support consumers and businesses to make use of reusable alternatives.

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