Attention, eco-minded coffee connoisseurs: If you bought your caffeine fix in a disposable cup this morning, that cup probably won’t get recycled, even if you dutifully chucked it into a green bin. Starbucks manages to recycle only about 39 percent of the 4 billion cups it uses each year.
What gives—it’s just paper, right? Not exactly. Coffee cups are coated in plastic to keep them from leaking. That extra layer also makes them more difficult to recycle, even though the technology exists to extract it. Now, a U.K. inventor has developed a coffee cup with a plastic liner that cleanly separates from its paper shell during the typical recycling process.
Martin Myerscough says he originally considered redesigning the yogurt cup, which is generally excluded from curbside collections. “Then I thought, ‘What about coffee cups?’ Lo and behold, they don’t get recycled either.” The reason is financial, Adam Minter reports for Bloomberg View: For recyclers to justify the expense of removing the plastic from cups, they need to receive many more paper cups, which make up a small fraction of all the waste thrown into the recycling pile.
Generating more paper refuse isn’t the answer, of course. Reusable mugs are good in theory, but most consumers haven’t embraced them. And although paper cups can be composted, they generate greenhouse gases as they break down.
Myerscough’s creation, dubbed Green Your Cup, could be a viable solution because it can be pooled with all other paper products—such as magazines and newspapers—at the recycling plant, where they’re all tossed into a vat of soapy water to remove inks, staples, and plastic films. Myerscough says recyclers will have to be trained to spot his recyclable product so that the cups can be integrated into their operations.
He’s talking with various U.K. coffee shops about carrying the cups, and to packaging manufacturers about licensing the required machine, which he says can be tacked onto existing production lines. Myerscough estimates that his cup will cost about 10 percent more to make. That might be worth it to Starbucks, which has a long way to go before reaching its goal of offering recycling at all its stores by 2015.