Paper Cups: Can They be Recycled?

Did you know that drinking three to five cups of coffee every day can slow down the mental decline associated with aging? A recent study has shown that people who drink between three to five cups of joe per day showed a 65% decrease in developing dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Many of us get our daily dose of coffee from our local cafe or bistro. While coffee shops are wonderful and enjoyable ways to get your daily caffeine pick-me-up, all of those paper cups can begin to spell trouble for the environment. This is because they generally get sent to landfills, along with a bunch of other toxic, non-biodegradable materials.

Paper cups, whether for coffee or soda, are meant for one-time use. And unfortunately, even though we use millions of these convenient paper cups, there isn't much of a recycling program for paper cups in the United States.

This is because all paper cups have an inner coating of thin plastic or wax. It keeps beverages from soaking through the paper. While this coating is vital to keep our beverage contained -- imagine trying to drink hot coffee or bubbly soda from a rolled-up newspaper -- it also ensures that they cannot be sent to a recycling center.

But it also makes it very difficult to efficiently recycle paper cups, as the plastic or wax coating is practically inseparable from the paper. So far, the most innovative way to deal with paper cup waste is through composting, but even that is limited as of now.

Fortunately, it is possible to take steps towards dealing with paper cups in a way that is environmentally responsible.

Recycling Paper Cups

The bad news here is that, in most cases, you will probably just have to throw the cup itself away. There simply aren't that many cities or businesses with recycling programs that can take them. But there's still some hope for the accessories that typically accompany paper cups.

When you get a hot cup of coffee at a cafe, there is usually a cardboard sleeve wrapping around the cup to help keep your hands cool. This sleeve is easily recyclable -- you can drop it off at any recycling location or curbside bin that accepts corrugated cardboard.

Then there's the plastic lid that caps all to-go paper cups. These are as easy to recycle as the cardboard sleeves, and they can be dropped off at any location or in any curbside bin that can process #1-7 plastics, in non-bottle form.

Unfortunately, there isn’t anything you can do about the straws or stir sticks for now. Those will have to be thrown away or even reused by the consumer. However, one thing you can do to help reduce plastic straw usage is by keeping an inexpensive glass or stainless steel straw with you when you go out to eat.

Even though most companies and institutions aren't equipped to recycle the paper cups themselves, you can still do something about them. If you have a home compost system in your backyard or garden, you can try composting paper cups yourself. The paper will always break down quickly, but if the plastic isn’t readily bio-available, you may end up having to throw it away.

One of the best things you can do with used paper cups and straws is to use them for arts and crafts. If you have children (or if you're a child at heart), you can find dozens of fun craft instructions online that involve reusing paper cups, straws, and stir sticks.


Paper cups may not be the easiest thing in the world to recycle, but they're still a fast and convenient option for your busy schedule. And thankfully, as the world moves towards being more environmentally responsible, programs will start to appear that are ready to capably deal with plastic straws and paper cups. It's all just a matter of time.

Until then, don't feel bad about throwing your paper cup away in the garbage. We can help protect and preserve the earth in other ways while the industry catches up with recycling methods for paper cups.