The coffee conflict

August 4, 2017

Are disposable coffee cups recyclable? Experts have different opinions, but there are a few things we can do to save the environment and still get our caffeine fix, writes Jessica Morris.



Australians are obsessed with coffee, and it’s mind-blowing to learn that we use an estimated one billion disposable coffee cups every year. What’s even more shocking is that according to many experts (and famously shown on the ABC’s War on Waste) very few of these cups are recyclable. 

That’s right, the humble coffee cup which warms your hands like a hug on a winter’s day, is actually poisoning the Earth’s oceans and can take a thousand years to degrade back into the Earth.

When did coffee become so complicated?

While takeaway coffee cups look like they’re made from paper, most have a thin layer of plastic lining them which can take a thousand years to break down, long after the other components have returned to the Earth.

During this long, drawn-out process, many coffee cups also break down into small pieces which sea life mistake for food.

So what can we do to solve the problem?

Experts are divided as to whether we should try to recycle our coffee cups, and some question the validity of those that are labelled as compostable and biodegradable. It’s all a bit confusing—especially when we just want our morning coffee fix. Thankfully, Planet Ark’s head of campaigns, Brad Gray, shares a few tips on their website about how we can approach the issue.

“Two of the general recycling rules are ‘If in doubt, leave it out’ and ‘Follow the rules’, both of which apply [in the workplace],” he says. “If your workplace says ‘No cups in the recycling’, it’s best to follow that rule.”

When it comes to recycling at home, he says a council that accepts milk and juice cartons should generally be able to dispose of the occasional coffee cup. However, when doing this it’s best to flatten it, and other experts say it’s also important to remove the lid, if you take one at all. 

While experts are divided on the coffee cup issue, there is one thing they all agree on: it’s best to switch to reusable. That means using mugs at cafes, and carrying your own plastic or ceramic cup when you get takeaway coffee.

Reusable coffee cups can be pricey, but for your basic, everyday cup, you can pick one up at your local supermarket for about five dollars. 

Ultimately, this doesn’t change much in your day, but over time it helps to make a dent in the estimated 60,000 kg of plastic landfill our disposable coffee cups make every year—and that’s definitely something worth investing in. 


Tags: Salvation Army Australia

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