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Why Are So Few Coffee Cups Recycled?

Are your favorite coffee chains guilty of false recycling claims?

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Tantek Çelik/Flickr

To-go coffee cups are a billion dollar business, and though many of these paper or composite vessels are recyclable, according to a new report, they are not being recycled in the UK (older reports demonstrate this problem exists in the U.S. and Canada as well). This week, Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Caffè Nero, and Pret were called out for claiming to recycle when in fact they were not, according to The Telegraph. Great Britain uses about 7 million paper coffee cups each day and 2.5 billion every year.

Apparently, when you break down the numbers, fewer than 1 in 400 paper cups given to customers in the UK get recycled. On the one hand, this has more to do with how consumers are disposing of them; once a barista hands that latte over to the guest, the shop no longer has control over what happens to the cup.

At issue is the fact that these paper products often bear the recycling symbol, but they can't just be placed into a city's recycling bin. Because of a plastic laminate coating on their interior (so as to prevent hot beverages from seeping through the paper), they have to go through a special process to be recycled, according to Simply Cups, a service that collects and properly recycles these types of disposable cups.

According to Simply Cups, fewer than 3 million paper coffee cups were recycled last year. The company's co-founder Peter Goodwin told The Times: "The consumer has trust in the brand that if they put a recycling sign on a cup then that product is being recycled. People are being misled."

Britain's largest chain, Costa, has more than 2,000 stores and brands its cups with the recycling logo, according to The Telegraph, while Caffè Nero and Pret detail recycling information on their sleeves. Environmentalists say this may mislead customers into believing the cup itself is also recyclable. When these coffee cups are found in recycling bins they are often sorted out as trash because they cannot be processed by the same plants that process paper, glass, and plastic.

Previous exposés found that this trend was also prevalent in Canada and the U.SStarbucks admits recycling its coffee cups remains an issue in many countries due to logistics and factors beyond its control. The company has focused its efforts on encouraging consumers to use reusable cups by providing affordable options and incentivizing customers who bring their own cup. The company also says it is "working with companies and organizations along the value chain as a member of the Food Packaging Institute's Paper Recovery Alliance and Plastics Recovery Group" so as to offer more recycling options, particularly in areas where Starbucks operates.

Spokespeople for Pret, Caffè Nero, and Costa told Newsweek they were working to deal with the issues surrounding recycling of the paper cups, and Starbucks has a section on its website describing its goal to "develop comprehensive recycling solutions for our paper and plastic cups." If that doesn't work maybe these big coffee brands should take a page from KFC. Last year the company introduced edible coffee cups in the UK and coffee drinkers went bonkers.

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