Plastic cups are sold by the millions at restaurants and cafes, doled out at parties and events and all too often tossed in the trash after a single use only to languish in landfills indefinitely. Though reusable cups are the most environmentally-friendly choice, disposables are still in high demand, so other options are needed. Recycled plastic cups are an important part of the solution to unnecessary waste, and more of them are being offered as an alternative to cups made of virgin plastics.

The problem with plastic

A disposable plastic cup can take up to 80 years to decompose; an astonishing 1 million of them are used every six hours just on airline flights within the United States. Plastic cups are typically made from domestic natural gas, a finite fossil fuel, in an energy-intensive manufacturing process that results in the emission of toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the air. In 2009, it was discovered that chemical emissions were changing the DNA of cattle located on a farm downwind of a plastic manufacturing facility. Cutting back production on new plastics could help diminish such unfortunate effects.

If Americans choose to recycle more of their plastic waste, including beverage bottles, plastic bags and product packaging, producing single-use plastic cups from virgin plastics could become a thing of the past. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States generated 13 million tons of plastic waste in 2009 but only 7 percent of that was recovered for recycling. The good news is, the rate of recycling rises each year, and as the market for recycled plastics has expanded, the number of businesses handling or reclaiming post-consumer plastics has increased. Easy access to recycling facilities, in conjunction with education campaigns, helps ensure higher recycling rates.

Options for recycled plastic cups

Recycled plastic cups are not only popping up on store shelves, they're increasingly available at restaurants, hotels, festivals and other places where beverages are sold in disposable cups. PepsiCo recently rolled out a new line of cups that are not only recyclable, but also contain 20 percent post-consumer recycled content. These fountain cups are now available at restaurants, stadiums, theme parks, colleges and universities.

Bare Solo cupsSolo, one of the world's largest manufacturers of disposable plastic tableware, now offers a line of products called Bare - Bringing Alternative Resources for the Environment. In addition to offering cups that are recyclable and made from compostable or renewable materials, Bare includes plastic cups made from 20 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. Solo reports that these clear recycled cups can be recycled in most communities that accept plastic water bottles.

And what about those plastic lids that are provided along with paper or styrofoam coffee cups? The world's first hot cup lid with recycled content debuted in early 2011. The 'EcoLid 25' by Eco-Products is made from 25 percent post-consumer recycled content, made in the U.S. from recycled materials discarded by large retailers.

How to recycle plastic cups

The number '6' or '7' in a triangle seen on the bottom of most plastic cups, including those iconic red party cups from Solo, indicates that it's rather difficult to recycle. Facilities accepting these cups aren't available in every community. Check Earth911.com to find out whether these plastics can be recycled in your area.

Unfortunately, used plastic cups can't be recycled into new plastic cups, so it's best to avoid using non-recycled and hard-to-recycle plastic cups when possible. When you do find yourself stuck with a few, try to re-use them instead of immediately tossing them in the trash. Use them to start seeds indoors, as organizers for small loose objects, or as scoops for pet food. You can also cut them in half and use them as cups for dips and sauces.

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