The question on everyone’s lips: can you recycle coffee cups?


May 30, 2017


Craig Reucassel has started a debate with the focus on coffee cups in the ABC’s War on Waste. It’s been suggested that 50,000 coffees cups – the equivalent of a tram-full – are sent to landfill every half hour. Unfortunately, coffee cups can’t be sorted through all Material Recovery Facilities in Australia just yet – but at Cleanaway we’re committed to making a sustainable future possible so we’re working hard to change that. Let us explain why it’s not as easy as throwing your coffee cups into the recycling…

Coffee cups are made from a material called liquid paper board (LPB). This is a combination of paper and plastic which allows these cups to hold liquid without leaks. Many people assume that because of this combination of paper and plastic, the material can’t be recycled, but this isn’t the case.

Over the years many household items that were considered waste, are now being recycled thanks to new technologies, and extensive community education campaigns.  These include magazines, window faced envelopes and milk cartons. Milk cartons, in fact, are made of a similar liquid paper board to coffee cups.

Australia has a long history of recycling LPB.  For many years now, milk cartons have been accepted through all local government kerbside and commercial commingled recycling systems, and LPB has been accepted in mixed paper products. In order to allow paper mills to recycle LPB, the ISRI international paper recycling standard and the Australia Council of Recyclers has specified the amount of polymer coated fibre that can be contained in mixed paper streams.

Mixed paper loads, which are sorted and baled in your local commingled material recycling facility to be sent to paper mills for pulping have an allowable threshold of liquid paper board.  This is classified as “outthrows”, but it isn’t the same as contamination.   Outthrows are a limited amount of other paper fibre material, which may include LPB,  that can be contained in mixed paper loads, so paper mills can successfully pulp and manufacture fibre product and produce high quality paper product. On the downside, outthrows influence rebates because some pay a premium for mixed paper feed stock with a lower percentage of outthrows.

The quality of feed stock and the resulting value of rebates is important because they are an essential part of how we close the loop on recyclable commodities. Materials like cardboard and paper have a huge potential to be made into new products creating the economic case for recycling and driving the circular economy.

So what would happen if disposable coffee cups were added to Australia’s kerbside and commercial comingled recycling systems? Initial studies of today’s mixed paper loads have found sub 1% outthrows counts (liquid paperboard) in our current mixed paper streams being sent to paper mills to be recycled. The addition of 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes of coffee cup into kerbside and comingled recycling programs is likely to have little to no impact on national outthrows averages.

However, before we can widely accept coffee cups through kerbside recycling programs, a national waste audit and detailed modelling of the impact of an additional 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes of liquid paper board into Australia’s recycling streams is required. We need to investigate the potential impact of this on Australian paper mills and determine what is required to keep them competitive against modern paper mills.

One of the biggest reasons we are not yet recycling coffee cups the way we recycle milk cartons, comes down to the ability of recycling facilities to evolve alongside the changes we are seeing in consumer behaviour.

Through sector-wide collaboration and leadership from key stakeholders we can start moving in the right direction. Coffee cup manufacturers and industry leaders can set minimum design standards for coffee cup plastic films and how they function during paper pulping. At the other end of the recycling chain, facilities should be investing in ongoing improvements, such as upgraded decontamination processes.

Australia is a leader in resource recovery because of our collaborative approach and industry leadership. We’ll make progress here by working with existing facilities, and investing in new ones like the new Material Recovery Facility in Perth, to process liquid paper board as a marketable commodity and not just write it off as landfill.

Thanks to Manny Manatakis for the facts and insights for this article.

Manny Manatakis is Cleanaway’s National Sustainability Solution Specialist, a member of the National Packaging Covenant Liquid Paper Board Recycling Working Group and working with Australia’s largest coffee cup manufactures to establish a national coffee cup recycling solution.

Contact us today to find out how we’re making a sustainable future possible.