Starbucks Proves You Can Recycle Coffee Cups

What happens to these coffee cups when they go in the Starbuck's recycling bin?. (Photo: Yulia Moses/Shutterstock)

I don't go to Starbucks often, but sometime during the past year or so, I noticed that the trash receptacle in my local Starbucks had been divided into two receptacles. One is for recyclable items, including coffee cups, the other is for all other trash. I've been curious about the coffee cups being included in the recycling side. I thought they were difficult to recycle because of the plastic coating that keeps the liquid from seeping through.

Apparently, it's possible. According to Fast Company, Starbucks recently proved it by recycling 25 million unused Starbucks cups. The cups were "excess inventory" that would normally have been sent to the landfill.

The 25 million unused cups were part of a pilot program meant to show that coffee cups can be recycled back into coffee cups. The cups were sent to a recycling mill in Wisconsin that separated the plastic lining from the cardboard and turned the cardboard pulp into sheets. Those sheets were sent to a packaging company that turned the sheets into paperboard. A third company printed the Starbucks logo onto the board and turned them into new cups.

The point of this was to demonstrate to the industry at large that it's not difficult nor expensive to recycle these cups. It's no more expensive to recycle the cups than it is to recycle paper, according to Fast Company. And it makes no difference whether the cups are used or not.

One thing Starbucks hasn't figured out yet is how to ensure coffee cups get recycled in individual communities, so I'm not sure what happens to the paper cups from my local Starbucks' recycling efforts.

This loop isn't closed

reusable starbucks coffee mug
Don't stop bringing your reusable mugs to Starbucks and other coffee shops. Recycling disposables is still far from common. (Photo: Colin Hui/Shutterstock)

So now that Starbucks has proven these cups can be easily recycled, we can stop lugging our reusable travel mugs to Starbucks and other coffee houses, right?

Not so fast.

Just because they can be easily recycled, doesn't mean they are easily recycled. The problem is that many municipal recycling centers aren't set up to recycle them. Remember, the pilot program was not meant to convince consumers to recycle their disposable cups; it was meant to convince recycling centers to start accepting those cups.

Which brings me back to the recycling bin at my local Starbucks. I know my local recycling center doesn't accept those cups. So what's happening to them?

I fear they're being sent to the landfill. And, what's worse, the bin may be causing consumers to forgo bringing reusable travel mugs because they think their disposable cups are being recycled.