Packaging and Print

The paper coffee cup recycling puzzle

Your paper coffee cup may seem like it's recyclable, but chances are it's not. It's an issue that paper cup manufacturers have struggled with for decades. And it's also something that has a far-reaching impact on the global environment.

It's time we take a closer look at the average American paper cup, the incredible amount of waste that accumulates each time we toss our cups into the bin, and what we can do about it.

But first, let's see how much you know about paper coffee cups and the recycling process.

Quiz: Paper coffee cups and recyclability

Have you had your coffee today?
Good, because it's time to test your knowledge about paper coffee cups, waste, and recycling.

Question 1

Most paper cups are made of:

Question 2

Why are paper cups sent to the landfill?

Question 3

If one person purchases a disposable cup every day, how many pounds of waste is created every year?

Question 4

What are six major steps in the recycling process?

Question 5

The ink on paper cups doesn’t need to be removed before being recycled into new products.

Question 6

Every ton of recycled paper saves:

And you're done!

Thanks for taking the time to take the quiz.
We hope you learned something and had a little fun, too.

Want to learn more?

Read our in-depth feature on paper coffee cups here.
If you want to learn how BASF is tackling the problem, watch our short video.

 
 
Start Quiz

ACardboard, with a thin layer of plastic tightly attached to the cup.

BMultiple layers of recycled paper and plastic.

CPaper and wax.

Correct! That’s right. The thin layer of plastic, called polyethylene, keeps heat in and prevents the cup from getting soggy.
Next Question
Incorrect! Nope. Most paper cups are made with a thin layer of plastic called polyethylene, which is what keeps heat in and prevents the cup from getting soggy.
Next Question

AMost facilities can’t recycle paper cups because they are two-dimensional coated packaging and the process to separate the polyethylene from the cup stock paper board has proven to be difficult.

BMost people don’t put their paper cups into the recycling bins.

CPaper cups biodegrade naturally in landfills.

Correct! Nailed it. Polyethylene is considered a contaminant and it is not recyclable through the paper waste stream in a recycling facility. During the sorting process cups are sent to the landfill for this reason.
Next Question
Incorrect! Polyethylene is considered a contaminant and it is not recyclable through the paper waste stream in a recycling facility. During the sorting process cups are sent to the landfill for this reason.
Next Question

A12 lbs.

B23 lbs.

C2 lbs.

Correct! That’s right! In fact, Recycling Advocates estimate that 50 million disposable cups are used per year in the metro area of Portland, Oregon. This equates to 3 million pounds of solid waste and 6,000 metric tons of CO2 being generated.
Next Question
Incorrect! Sorry, the correct answer is 23 lbs. Recycling Advocates estimate that 50 million disposable cups are used per year in the metro area of Portland, Oregon. This equates to 3 million pounds of solid waste and 6,000 metric tons of CO2 being generated.
Next Question

APick-up, sorting, re-pulping, screening, de-inking, and new products.

BPick-up, sorting, soaking, washing, drying, and folding.

CSorting, cleaning, chopping, marinating, simmering, and then taste testing.

Correct! Easy one — the other two answers were a bit ridiculous. Recycling seems simple but there are multiple steps, as well as factors that affect the recycling process, such as local government policies and access to recycling markets such as paper mills and plastic processors.
Next Question
Incorrect! Whoops! That’s wrong. Recycling seems simple but there are multiple steps, as well as factors that affect the recycling process, such as local government policies and access to recycling markets such as paper mills and plastic processors.
Next Question

ATrue

BFalse

Correct! That’s right! Paper that has ink on it must have the ink removed before it can be used in a new paper product.
Next Question
Incorrect! Unfortunately, no. Paper that has ink on it must have the ink removed before it can be used to in a new paper product.
Next Question

A1006 trees

B17 trees

C1 tree

Correct! Good guess! Every ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, as well as 4,100 kWh of electricity, 380 gallons of oil, 4.6 cubic yards of landfill space and 7,000 gallons of water.
Next Question
Incorrect! Incorrect. Every ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, as well as 4,100 kWh of electricity, 380 gallons of oil, 4.6 cubic yards of landfill space and 7,000 gallons of water.
Next Question
 
 
 
 
 
 

Under the Lid:

The Anatomy of a Paper Cup

Take a closer look at the components of your cup

As you may have guessed, there's a lot more to the paper cup recycling process - and many more components that need to be processed by your local recycling plant (if they get recycled at all).

Click on the paper cup diagram to learn more about its individual parts.

 

lid

Your morning wake-me-up has a lid made of polystyrene, a non-biodegradable plastic. Most recycling facilities lack the means to handle these plastic lids, although it depends on the type of lid (black or white; PS-5 or PS-6) and the requirements of your local recycling program.

 

the lining

What keeps your paper cup from collapsing into a hot, soggy mess once it’s filled with your beverage of choice? That’d be the polyethylene lining, made from a common plastic that retains heat and repels liquids.

Although the plastic coating only makes up 5% of your cup, most paper recycling mills lack the equipment to filter it out.

That’s why the vast majority of paper cups end up in landfills.

 

the cup

The bulk of your cup is made of wood and bark chips transformed into wood pulp and then processed into paper, which then gets bleached and shaped into cups for your caffeinated consumption.

Many paper cup manufacturers use 100% virgin paper board to make the vessel for your morning java, while companies like Starbucks integrate 10% post-consumer (recycled) paper with 90% virgin materials.

 

the sleeve

The cardboard sleeve puts up a protective barrier between your hands and the scalding-hot liquids in your cup. While it depends on the cup and the company, the sleeve is oftentimes made of recycled and recyclable materials.

 

The Recycle Symbol

The Mobius loop generally means your cup is recyclable, but the recycling system in your area may reject the cup anyway.

Another Mobius loop variant shows off a code to identify the item’s recycling category — like PS-6 for the polystyrene lid or PAP for the paper cup and sleeve.

 

The Print

Before your paper cup can be fully recycled, its fancy graphics must be stripped away in a process called deinking. To avoid the ugly side-effects of ink waste, many companies are moving towards soy, vegetable and water-based inks for a lighter environmental impact.

Did you know?

Only three of 450 U.S. paper recycling mills can process plastic-coated cups.

Our waste keeps piling up

An estimated 50 billion cups in the U.S. end up in landfills every year.

And never seems to leave the party.

The standard polyethylene-lined paper cup takes about 20 years to decompose.

If waste isn't your cup of tea?

Check your local recycling guidelines to make sure every part your paper cup ends up where it should.

Feed the Mobius loop

You can support recycled content by switching to coffee shops that only use recyclable paper cups, cups made from recycled material, or both.

And use the right equipment for the job.

If your local coffee shop has its own recycling system, try to dispose of your paper cups in the special bins they provide in-store.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room

One little cup of coffee may seem harmless, but pooled together, our cups create an elephantine amount of waste. Even if you throw the lid in the waste bin and recycle the sleeve, there's still the small matter of your actual paper cup. Once you learn how many cups end up in landfills every year, you'll find the matter isn't so small after all. Here's what we mean.

Want your own copy of the infographic?

Download

WATCH: Where science meets sustainability

BASF has developed an innovative liquid-barrier water-based polymer for an alternative to extruded polyethylene.

It empowers coating formulators with a polymer that is 100% recyclable and repulpable.

Because of its repulpability, recyclability is improved, reducing landfill costs-and the number of elephants in the room.

Check out the video below to learn how