The next time you finish guzzling that chai latte with soy milk, Starbucks is hoping that you’ll toss your paper cup into a recycling bin instead of a trash can. The world’s largest coffee retailer – and at least one of its competitors – has been working in recent years to increase paper coffee cup recycling. And while increasing public interest in sustainability offers hope that the companies will be successful in their efforts, the fact remains that paper cup recycling faces a number of significant challenges, ranging from consumer habits to recycling infrastructure.

Making a Push

As detailed in a recent Boston Globe article, Starbucks has been installing coffee cup recycling bins in its stores. The company just placed the receptacles in all of its Boston-area locations. The bins represent one component of the company’s efforts to reduce the need for virgin paper. For instance, Starbucks offers its U.S. and Canadian customers a 10-cent discount for using their own reusable mugs. Tim Hortons, a coffee retailer with stores throughout Canada and the United States, also has placed cup recycling bins in some of its stores and drive-thrus.

Consumer Behavior

Achieving widespread recycling of paper coffee cups in the United States could prove to be a challenge for several reasons, not the least of which is consumer behavior. Even though their communities’ residential recycling programs may accept paper cups, people often don’t hang on to those cups long enough to place them in their home recycling bins, says Chaz Miller, state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, a trade association that represents companies that collect trash and recyclables. If someone buys coffee at a Starbucks or another store, they’re typically going to want to get rid of the cup quickly, and if there’s no obvious recycling bin around, the cup’s going into the trash can, he adds.

Paper cup recycling “is very challenging given our rush for convenience,” Miller says. ­

Other Challenges

Consumer behavior isn’t the only challenge facing paper coffee cup recycling. Recycling infrastructure can be an issue as well, Starbucks says. The recycling services available to retailers can vary widely from area to area in the United States, the coffee chain told the U.S. Conference of Mayors last year. Starbucks has asked the organization to work to improve local recycling systems and services. In September, the company also hosted its third Cup Summit, at which approximately 100 people from the food service, paper and recycling industries gathered to discuss ways to improve the recycling of food packaging.

Contamination poses another potential problem. When consumers do place their coffee cups in recycling bins, they often do so with some amount of coffee still in them, which damages the paper and can render it unusable by paper mills, Miller says. Also, paper coffee cups typically feature a layer of wax; the removal of this wax can be a problem for some recycling plants, he adds.

Finally, there are the end users, the companies that buy recovered paper for manufacturing or other purposes. The market for recyclable materials such as paper, plastics and aluminum rises up and down depending on any number of circumstances. End-user demand for recycled paper cups has been an issue lately, The Boston Globe reported. “You can collect all this stuff, but unless you have someone to buy it from you, who cares?” Christine Beling, a project engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told the newspaper.

Someday, the recycling of paper coffee cups may very well be widespread. Getting to that point, however, will be no walk in the park.

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Recycling coffee cups
The next time you finish guzzling that chai latte with soy milk, Starbucks is hoping that you’ll toss your paper cup into a recycling bin instead of a trash c