Why aren’t the standard Starbucks cups recyclable?

Why the paper cup is hard to recycle

As basic as it looks, from an engineering perspective, today’s disposable cup is close to perfect. It doesn’t leak, break, melt or warp. It doesn’t change the way beverages taste. It’s cheap enough to be mass produced. It’s light and stackable, so it can be easily transported and stored.

Which is why it’s so difficult to invent a greener alternative. An eco-friendly cup has to first meet all those requirements — and then break down easily.

There are some cups on the market that are advertised as “compostable,” but they generally don’t degrade in the same way banana peels or egg shells do in your household compost bin. Instead, they must be processed in industrial composting facilities, which are still rare.

And while technically, Starbucks’ cups can be recycled under the right circumstances, they usually are not. Most facilities don’t recycle paper cups because to do so, they would have to separate the cups’ plastic lining from the paper. Many recyclers find that process to be more trouble than it’s worth. If recycling facilities try to recycle paper cups without separating out materials first, the plastic lining is likely to jam up their machines.

That makes the cups effectively non-recyclable at most facilities. Instead, the cups usually end up in landfills or the environment, where the plastic lining can break down into microplastics that may harm marine life or enter the human food chain.

 		Graphic: Max Pepper/CNN
Graphic: Max Pepper/CNN

Ben Packard, a former Starbucks vice president who used to oversee the company’s sustainability efforts, described the problem as system-wide.

“Starbucks can make the best compostable, recyclable cup and it’ll never be be composted or recycled if the rest of the system doesn’t change,” Packard, who is now the director of the University of Washington’s EarthLab, told CNN Business. “They cannot change the system by themselves.”

Still, the company has set high standards for itself. “We won’t consider our cups universally recyclable until our customers can recycle them in our stores, at their homes and workplaces, and in public spaces,” the company said in its 2010 global responsibility report.

For now, Starbucks can afford to move at its own pace because the public is not up in arms about the cup. But consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about disposable, single-use waste.

And sometimes, all it takes is one spark to light a fire.

 		Stand.Earth activists erected a "cup monst
Stand.Earth activists erected a "cup monster" to pressure Starbucks to address its waste. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

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