Which bin do I put my coffee cup in?

In the Greenpeace office this week we’ve been arguing over which recycling bin to toss our coffee cups into. While most people take their own mug to the cafe, there are a few people that forget, causing much consternation to the office zealots who find the cups strewn between the plastics, paper, and compost bin.

Someone piped up that polystyrene is in fact recyclable, another said that paper cups are covered with a plastic film which makes them unable to be recycled as paper, and someone else suggested buying those paper cups with a biodegradable film, prompting the response that these can’t be recycled and go to landfill anyway.

So what do we do with all these coffee cups? Whilst this may not be the greatest moral dilemma of our time, it is significant – literally billions of coffee cups of coffee cups are dumped in landfill every year.

At that point, our resident scientist weighed in and told us where to shove our cups.

What’s the answer to our coffee cup dilemma?

He effectively ended the argument so I thought I’d share what he said:

Hi all,

Sorry to nitpick, but I feel it’s important to clarify the situation on polystyrene – it’s something I’ve been asked about a number of times.

We should not buy the plastic industry’s line on the recycling of polystyrene or most other plastics for that matter. This is an important, current issue as industry has been responsible for a significant erosion of the definition of the term recycling.

Polystyrene may be collected (if used in bulk applications; big factories not dispersed applications such as coffee cups) and used for a number of dubious applications (stirring plastic into soil for aeration anyone?) or melted down to make lower quality plastic products but it is not turned back into a fresh coffee cup. Therefore it is not recycled. Every plastic coffee cup used is made of virgin polymer; “recycling” does not reduce the quantity of oil used to make new coffee cups.

A related rant: don’t buy into these dodgy biodegradable eco cups (they’re largely made of GM corn and perpetuate the existing consumption paradigm) – NatureWorks,  one of the biggest players, is owned by Cargill, one of the biggest corporations pushing GM food onto the world.

The only sure-fire way to increase the sustainability of your consumption habits is to reduce them.



So what’s the solution? Use a reusable cup.

And in case you or someone else in your office brings in a single use coffee cup – here’s what to do:

Find out who your recycling company is and talk to them about their specifications for recycling. Maybe they need you to separate waxed coffee cups from their lids or don’t accept juice cartons with foil insides. Ensuring you know what bin to out your rubbish makes sure that nothing ends up at the dump when it could be made into something else.

What else can you do?

Using less plastic and learning about recycling might not sound like a lot of fun, but it could save a turtle’s life. Here are 10 practical and achievable things you can start doing right now to cut down your plastic use and help prevent the senseless death of marine animals:

  1. Sign the petition to state premiers around the country yet to sign onto a Cash for Containers scheme and demand they step up to stop litter.
  2. Learn more about plastics and how to recycle them. This blog will take you through what you can and can’t recycle, and other organisations like Planet Ark have great learning resources to help guide you.
  3. Teach your friends and family about the importance of proper recycling. More people would think twice about littering if they knew the consequences plastic pollution has on our waterways, oceans and marine life. Share the information you find and try to positively influence the consumption and recycling habits of those around you.
  4. Join an initiative to help clean up your local area. Whether it’s participating in the annual Clean Up Australia Day or joining a Responsible Runners group – there are lots of ways you can have fun and curb plastic pollution at the same time.
  5. Or, if you’d prefer, fly solo and join the Take3 challenge: pick up three pieces of litter from your local beach, river, park or street every day.
  6. Check the products you buy for microbeads. Often the use of microbeads – tiny plastic beads found in many cosmetics and toiletries – is advertised, but they can also be hiding in the ingredients list. Luckily, the folks at Beat the Microbead have made an app to help you find out if these tiny pollutants are in your favourite products.
  7. Remember to bring your reusable containers with you. Cloth shopping bags, stainless steel water bottles and travel mugs are great – as long as you’ve got them with you when you need them.
  8. Opt out of disposable plastics when you’re eating out. Doing things like bringing your own container and recyclable or compostable cutlery for take-out meals and saying no to straws may seem strange, but it’ll help you cut down on one-use plastics.
  9. Think about excess packaging whenever you’re making purchases. Try to veer towards foods and goods packaged in paper or other recyclable materials rather than plastic wrapping – or better yet, nothing at all! You can read here about Berlin’s new no-packaging supermarket!
  10. For the brave: go plastic free! Life without plastic can be difficult, and expensive, but if you have the dedication it’s a worthy challenge. Read about the path to a plastic free life in the Life Without Plastic and My Plastic Free Life blogs.
  • Alex

    I totally agree on the reusable cup front – but this article doesn’t answer the question of where to dispose of takeaway coffee cups. Is the landfill bin the only option?

  • Elsa

    Hi Alex,

    That’s right, unless your local council specifically says they recycle paper cups, (you could ring them up to ask or find their recycling instructions) takeaway coffee cups all end up in landfill. The Greenpeace office is in the City of Sydney precinct, and they don’t recycle paper cups because of the plastic covering.

    Sad, but true.


  • Tanya

    I agree with Alex – still don’t know which bin. Is the article saying the ‘paper’ cups are considered plastic because of the film? I never even see polystyrene cups anymore… unless it has a new face?
    I keep multiple re-usables – one in the car, one at home to take on trips, and often one in my bag, otherwise it’s never there when I need it!

  • Chris

    Could you ask Adam this:

    Evey litre of oil used to make polystyrene coffee cups and other plastic products is one litre that won’t be used for fuel.

    If used for fuel it will end up being converted to CO2, sulphur dioxide, CO, NOx, particulates and other nasty things.

    If used for polystyrene/plastic it may end up in landfill, where who knows what will happen.

    Given that there is a finite oil resource and humans will, is it better for more of it to end up as CO2 or for more of it to end up as landfill?

  • Elsa

    Hi Chris,

    How about a third choice? Can we leave the oil in the ground? Most of the remaining oil reserves are in pristine, and also risky, environments like the Arctic, so should we be drilling until we’ve extracted the last drop?


    While there are much better alternatives to polystyrene and fuel, I think we should be leaving the oil where it is.

  • Vale

    Sorry, but… only 2 topics under “Toxic”?
    I was expecting much more!
    Come on! With all the toxic stuff around us this blog should be…huge!
    But anyway, it’s a first step! 🙂

  • Elsa

    Good point. We’re currently working to reduce toxic chemicals in agriculture in Australia through our food and GM campaign, if you want to have a look at the work we’re doing on that. Check out this report Ready to Round Up glyphosate, which includes a section on the impacts of Roundup in Australia.


    For other organisations working to reduce toxic waste in Australia, check out the Total Environment Centre. They do amazing work.


    Thanks for your input!

  • Madeleine

    I work in waste management for music festivals and this issue is a huge one. At an event last weekend compostable crockery accounted for almost a third of our waste by volume.

    A few more questions for us all to ponder:
    What resources go into making your polypropylene keep cup?
    Do you know the source of the paper for your compostable cups?
    If the virgin polymer plastic cup is recycled, and so reduces virgin content for another product later in it’s lifecycle, how does this compare to a single-use compostable cup made from virgin paper and GM monoculture bioplastic?

  • Elsa

    Good point Madeleine. Encouraging use of GM crops is definitely a problem, as is water use in manufacturing. I saw a poster the other day that said that it takes 40 litres of water to produce ONE disposable coffee cup. Insane hey?

    I think the answer remains, taking your own cup to the coffee shop is the best solution.


  • free stuff

    I agree totally with how recycling plays a major factor in today’s society. The only real solution would be government intervention about how large organizations can produce the cups on large scales otherwise they will never reduce the amount of cups due to profit 🙁 If anyone is extremely interested in making Australia a greener and greater place I suggest going to http://www.freetreasure.com.au and recycling some of your goods within the community. Basically it allows you to find homes for items you no longer need instead of throwing them out 🙂

    Thanks Guys

  • Kim

    This article doesn’t really tell us where to put our paper coffee cups? Either PLA lined or plastic coated.
    I’d be interested to hear further…

  • Zane Fryer

    Yeah there are a lot of statements above but not a lot of answers. This leads me to think that there aren’t any finite solutions, other than consuming less.
    Standard cups need to be placed in the standard bin and compostable cups, where possible; can be placed in a compost bin. If the compostable cup (PLA Lined) ends up in the usual bin they will biodegrade over time.
    I guess every solution has its positives and negatives. A least there is now a discussion in the main stream about this topic which means we are moving in the right direction. A reusable cup is a good start however it is still most often made from polystyrene which is oil based. Paper cups are lined with a thin layer of Polystyrene which makes them difficult to recycle and will usually end up in landfill along with the polystyrene lid. PLA lined paper cups are another option which is the most sustainable option available at the moment. PLA is a bioplastic and derived from plants not oil using renewable materials such as corn starch and sugar cane. It has the same properties to polystyrene but it is biodegradable and compostable. The cup and lid (if manufactured from PLA) will biodegrade over time so even if they end up in land fill they will eventually biodegrade and will compost in a composting facility.
    Another way to limit your impact is to look for suppliers that use sustainable products as well as offsetting their transport and energy emissions using companies like http://www.carbonneutral.com.au . There are now quite a few suppliers such as http://www.epsdistribution.com.au which are taking these steps.

  • Mike

    So compostable packaging like this is no good?


  • Zane Fryer

    No that style of cup is the best step at this point in time. If they end up in a composting facility or even landfill they will biodegrade over time.

  • John Caley

    If milk and juice cartons which also have a plastic lining are recycled, why can’t cardboard cups?

    Other options, – you can also buy ceramic re-useable coffee cups with a silicon seal lid (instead of plastic re-useable cup)

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  • Hi there. I’m not nearly as knowledgable as most of you when it comes to environmental issues however to me the solution is simple. Use a reuseable coffee cup or give up the take-away coffee habit altogether and save yourself over $1000 a year! 🙂 Bridget

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  • Ivonus

    What a silly response. What about the cardboard ones?

    • MIro

      Now when was the last time you saw cardboard that held liquids Ivonus? They add a plastic layer or wax or other substances that pretty much make the cardboard used in these cups unrecyclable as far as I know.

      • Red Sage

        Mirosan that’s not what the recycling facility in my state says. cardboard/paper disposable coffee cups ARE recyclable in the ACT and elsewhere in some states… the waxy plastic lining does complicate the process (as with other cardboard cartons like juice boxes), but doesn’t preclude it.

        • Mirosan

          Ok, I concede. It would seem that they indeed are recyclable BUT a hell lot of local municipalities say they do not. This is indeed the case in my locality. Sadly! I will also make a few points though. First up, if you just take the time to SIT DOWN, in the ensuing 1-5 minutes you can have your coffee in peace, fully appreciate it’s flavour. Return the compliment to your barista and waitress AND perhapps get organised for whatever your day will entail arriving fresher and more effective to boot. The cup used is reusable for many years serving thousands and thousands of coffees in it’s unlimited lifespan. Being glass or ceramic will degrade gracefully when it eventually meets it’s demise having zero risk of offgassing or leaching any chemicals into your favourite drink. Having and unlimited lifespan and being made of fairly benign materials In the first place, in it’s lifespan saving much water, trees AND crude oil not to forget landfill (which is just a polically correct speak for some other once beautiful place being used as a trash can). In the end needing no special machinery, place or process to degrade and decompose. It merely grinds it’s self back to sand.

    • Red Sage

      Ivonus exactly. Yes cardboard coffee cups can be recycled. I’d check with your local facility whether they take these kind of drink vessels/liquid containers like juice boxes etc. All made of paper/cardboard but with a waxy plastic inner layer. In ACT they do recycle them so don’t put them in landfill here.

  • John English

    I read this post through, and I’m still no wiser. My question is: Are used coffee cups able to be recycled?
    I am talking about the paper/fibre ones that have a plastic lining.
    Can anyone tell me if there is any company in Australia that accepts such used coffee cups, and actually recycles them into something else.
    Or, as I suspect, do such cups finish up as landfill?

    • Red Sage

      Yes, cardboard/paper disposable coffee cups ARE recyclable in the ACT and elsewhere in some states… the waxy plastic lining does complicate the process (as with other cardboard cartons like juice boxes), but doesn’t preclude it.

  • Rob

    Have to agree with the other commentators. You already identified that some people occasionally bring in paper cups. To bring a reusable cup will indeed reduce landfill and might be better for GHG emissions (depending on how you rinse), but the article doesn’t tell us what to do when you do have a cup (polystyrene, paper or …).

    • MIro

      Except that reusable cups as mentioned in the article are aid to be made from GMO corn and such and hence have negative effects on the environment in other ways such a corruption of genetic base of plants / heavy pesticide use and the massive one heavy fertiliser use – from crude oil. Yep use glass/porcelain/metal and wash wash wash lastly recycle.

      • James Diack

        I think you misread the article, what it says is that the BIODEGRADABLE cups are made from the GMO corn. The reusable cups like the one pictured are likely made from plastics and rubber compounds.

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  • Responsible Cafes

    The answer is go reusable. Responsible Cafes is a network of hundreds of cafes across the country that offer a discount to customers with a reusable cup to help reduce the 327,000 cups and lids wasted every year in Australia. Go to http://responsiblerunners.org/responsible-cafes-program to find out more and sign up your local.

  • Lòrd Goofus

    This is a terrible article. Somehow you managed to 1,000 words without getting even remotely close to answering the question you postulated… to make matters worse, in one sentence your resident scientist says the plastic single-use cups get recycled into lower grade plastic products, then he completely contradicts himself in the very next sentence by saying they don’t get recycled. Which one is it? The whole article can be summarised into three words – “We don’t know”.

    • Andrew Clemence

      You missed his point, he is pushing a definition of recycling that doesn’t come naturally to most of us. The polystyrene coffee cups don’t become more coffee cups, thus not truly recycled. Some would argue that it’s merely semantics…

  • MIro

    John it’s pretty clear every coffee cup you get your coffee in is made NEW with Newly mined crude oil, cut down trees and manufacturing. And hence the correct term for any (if) recycling collection that might happen is DOWNCYCLYNG with the eventual plastic trash in the environment. The only way forward is to bring your own glass/porcelain washable cup, sit down and use theirs or limit your consumption ie eliminate it. Hope that helps.

    I came to the same conclusion a while back when I had an epiphany that no matter what they do to plastic it will never be converted to biomass ie food for something like animals or plants. It will always be a pollutant it’s just a matter of how far down the line that is. With glass, porcelain, metals etc they can be endlessly recycled back to the same items and if accidentally lost in nature will over time degrade back to the benign materials they came from – minerals/sand/clay, cellulose/hummus/plants.

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  • James Diack

    Of course a reusable cup, even if made from a combination of rubber and plastics (like the one pictured) is better; but in terms of actually answering the question it seems the answer is “It depends on your recycling service.” In terms of environmental education it would be much better to say that a whole lot more clearly. Time to review the comms textbook?

    • Red Sage

      Yes good answer. cardboard/paper disposable coffee cups ARE recyclable in the ACT and elsewhere in some states… the waxy plastic lining does complicate the process (as with other cardboard cartons like juice boxes), but doesn’t preclude it.

  • Kyle Sawyer

    This UK company can, but unfortunately they keep their process a trade secret for profit. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jul/17/recyle-disposable-coffee-cups-james-cropper

  • Keep Your Cup 2015

    Hey guys!

    Step 4 is really important – joining an initiative will help to spread the word of the waste that is actually created by reusable coffee cups! It’s really important that we encourage people to drink their coffee dine in, from a ceramic mug, or from a reusable cup!

    For those still wondering – NO – you cannot put take-away coffee cups into recycling! They’re coated with plastic and they will ultimately end up in landfill. Unless they’re labelled otherwise, you cannot recycle them!

    If you want to find out more, please check out our campaign page – Keep You Cup 2015 – on Facebook or one of our other social media sites! We have plenty more info.



    • Red Sage

      Keep Your Cup 2015 actually that’s not correct. Yes, cardboard/paper disposable coffee cups ARE recyclable in the ACT and elsewhere in some states… the waxy plastic lining does complicate the process (as with other cardboard cartons like juice boxes), but doesn’t preclude it. Bringing your own cup is a great idea as is drinking in, but it’s not a good idea to tell people to put their disposable coffee cup in the bin when in fact it can be recycled.

  • Lisa Flower

    it’s is such an ongoing dilemma, it inspired me to pen a poem..

    Coffee to go…

    If you’re a coffee fiend, like me, and you drink on the go,
    you may well question, which bin to throw,
    your once used cup that’s now kinda dead,
    compost it or recycle it?
    I scratch my head!
    There’s no sign on the cup that says it re-cycles,
    and nothing embossed to say it composts.

    It is true, there’s no reuse for this cup material,
    and daily millions are sent to burial.
    Each cup is lined with a plastic coating
    that keeps the coffee floating,
    without desecrating the outer cardboard casing,
    making coffee cups a massive deal
    ‘cause they all sentenced to death,“by landfill”.

    Some cups say they are biodegradable, compostable, eco-responsible,
    but where is the compost bin,
    to toss it in?
    We need compost bins in public spaces and places,
    for compostable to be possible,
    otherwise it joins the other cups
    on the dirty mound destined for a life, underground.

    It’s just one cup a day, I hear you say,
    but that cup is one of millions in just one day.
    When did this indulgence became OK?.
    Have we become just too blasé?
    Do we feel there’s no need,
    to take heed of our consumption,
    to question our daily use of stuff, without compunction?
    We need to say “NO” to disposable cups and be the solution,
    to this dire pollution.

    There is an answer, well there’s a few,
    a Keep Cup for one, is nothing new.
    A Keep Cup is reusable and quite doable.
    Pop one in your car and bag and be prepared for mental lag,
    and before the barista has a chance to say,
    “Have here or takeaway?”
    hold up your cup and boldly say,
    “I’ll have mine to go, in my BYO.
    It’s a better taste and leaves no waste”.

  • Red Sage

    Yes, cardboard/paper disposable coffee cups ARE recyclable in the ACT and elsewhere in some states… the waxy plastic lining does complicate the process (as with other cardboard cartons like juice boxes), but doesn’t preclude it.