Busting the myth on “cardboard” coffee cups

Australians love their coffee, and this is evident in the estimated one billion disposable coffee cups used per year. Coffee cups are also Australia’s second largest cause of landfill which is worrisome for our environment. 

Photo: Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

If you could recall an episode on War on Waste last February when host Craig Reucassel commandeered an old tram for a day filled with 50,000 coffee cups in Melbourne’s CBD, it was a wake-up call from him to the world and his message was simple: “Bring your own coffee cup.”


The Bring Your Own Coffee Cup Express was a visualisation for consumers on how much space takeaway cups takes in a tram to our bins. 

Brendan Lee, strategy manager for recycler Simply Cups says that a huge problem with these cups is that they take up a lot of space.

“Coffee cups are a big problem in that they fill up our bins and those bins then overflow,” he said. 

While disposable coffee cups appear to be made of paper, they contain a thin polyethylene lining which prevents liquids from being absorbed and seeping through. The plastic film makes the cups difficult to recycle, so commercial composting facilities tend to reject them which resulted in millions of takeaway cups ending up in landfill

In most areas of Victoria, the plastic lid of coffee cups could be recycled but the coffee cup itself should be put in the rubbish bin. 

So are they recyclable, or not? The good news is, disposable coffee cups can be recycled but that requires a different approach. Sustainability Victoria says there are organisations in the process of introducing collection and recycling programs dedicated solely to coffee cups in Australia. 

Simply Cups is one Australian-based recycling initiative that provides designated collection points at workplaces, schools and events in metropolitan Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. 

They provide collection bins or tubes that accepts any paper-based takeaway cup, minus the plastic lid that could be combined with commingle recycling. Cups collected through the service will be stored until a sufficient volume has been collected before being sent to a processing facility in Ballarat.

Mr Lee said that educating our councils is one of the most effective ways in disseminating correct information to the public about coffee cups recycling. 

“Once upon a time most councils said that the coffee cups could be recycled because they had been given information that it could be,” he said. 

“We do a lot of work educating councils and you’ll find now that most councils will say that the cups cannot be recycled.”

He also added that misleading symbols printed on recycling bins contributes to consumers’ confusion as well. 

“We are looking to change the symbols currently on recycling bins at places like shopping centres, airports and universities,” he said. 

“A lot of bins have a tick for recycling of coffee cups and it’s not the case. We are working with mainstream media and private organisations about changing their messaging.”

Despite that, the most effective way is still to avoid takeaway cups altogether by bringing your own reusable cup or stay in for a cup of coffee. 


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