Christian M. 6 min read

Disposable coffee cup recycling

Industrial-scale coffee cup recycling doesn’t exist. Over 99% of the 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups used every year in the UK will end up landfilled or incinerated.

The yearly output of coffee cup waste is literally of Titanic proportions, yet the government remains resolute it can completely eliminate their use (or at least provide a fully recyclable alternative) within the next 16 years.

In this article, we explain everything you need to know about disposable coffee cup waste, its environmental impact, and why we remain optimistic despite the difficult task of phasing out convenience.

💡 Key takeaways:

  • Colossal amounts: Billions of disposable coffee cups are used annually in the UK, with only a tiny fraction being recycled.
  • Difficult to recycle: Most disposable coffee cups are made of a paper-plastic composite, making them difficult to recycle.
  • Expensive alternatives: While compostable and reusable cups can significantly reduce environmental impacts, they’re 50% more expensive.

Disposable coffee cup waste

In the UK, billions of single-use coffee cups are used annually and disposed of in general waste bins (i.e. they are NOT recycled). This is mainly because the polyethene coating that makes the cups waterproof is very difficult to separate, making them difficult to process in standard recycling facilities. For this reason, only 1 in 400 coffee cups  (or 0.25% of the total) are recycled.

Mainstream coffee shops like Costa or Starbucks generate the bulk of this waste. They continue offering these standard disposable cups because they’re core to their business model. It’s coffee-on-the-go or no-go.

💡 Greenwashing: Costa and Starbucks boast that their disposable cups are increasingly made from recycled plastics and cardboard, avoiding resource extraction, water use, and carbon emissions. However, the cups remain largely unrecyclable themselves.

What are disposable coffee cups made of?

Disposable coffee cups (double wall cups) come in various compositions, including biodegradable and recyclable alternatives. However, the vast majority are a difficult-to-recycle paper-plastic composite with a plastic lid:

Paper: The main body of the cup is usually made from paperboard, which provides the cup’s structure, as well as some insulation to keep liquids warm. This material is cheap and highly recyclable on its own but not when mixed into a composite material.

Corrugated cardboard: The sleeve or cup holder that provides an insulated hold is typically made of the same corrugated cardboard used in transport boxes. It’s lightweight, uniqutous and an effective insulator, keeping users safe and the liquid hotter for longer. These can be removed from the cup and added to commercial cardboard recycling, yet the vast majority of people don’t do this.

Polyethene: The paperboard is typically lined with a thin layer of polyethene (also known as polyethene) that makes the cup waterproof and able to hold liquids without leaking.

Polypropylene or polystyrene: The lids are usually made of polypropylene or polystyrene plastic, chosen for its ability to withstand heat, provide a secure fit, and provide added strength to the cup.

💡 Specialised recycling: Only a handful of specialised facilities can directly process the composite paperboard-polythene cups, separating the waterproof plastic lining from the paper.

How much coffee cup waste is generated yearly?

It’s estimated that the UK generates 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups annually, or around 37 per person per year. This translates to approximately 25,000 tonnes of coffee cup waste per year, which is just shy of the weight of the Titanic!

These Titanic figures reflect the scale of the issue. An entire economic sector is dedicated to these cups, so transitioning is unlikely to happen overnight.

💡 Lack of specific regulations: There isn’t a single devolved waste policy that specifically addresses coffee cup waste, leaving a grey area that businesses can use to resist change.

How can I recycle a disposable coffee cup?

Recycling disposable coffee cups is challenging due to their mixed material composition. However, it’s not impossible to at least partially recycle them. Here are a few things you can do as a person or business to contribute to recycling coffee cups:

Avoiding disposable coffee cup waste

Before considering recycling, it’s necessary to consider ways to minimise, reduce or avoid this waste altogether. In other words, consider how to avoid takeout coffee altogether, or if it is too inconvenient, how to get coffee on the go without a disposable cup.

Coffee cup waste prevention

This can be entirely prevented with a reusable, portable coffee cup or thermos. You can either make coffee at home and take it with you or alternatively refill your washable cup or flask at coffee shops that allow for this.

Businesses can also contribute by providing free hot beverage stations on their premises so employees can always have hot beverages at hand without needing to purchase them.

💡 Coffee shops: Many coffee shops now offer discounts for bringing your coffee cup, thus preventing the waste of coffee cups for both the business and the consumer. Alternatively, some provide composable or biodegradable cups that may be easily disposed of together with commercial food waste.

Coffee cup reduction

If it is difficult or too inconvenient to effectively prevent disposable coffee cup waste, then it is possible to minimise its quantity and its environmental impacts.

In addition to prevention measures, prioritising compostable or biodegradable cups over traditional cups can help. Also, incentivising staff to use reusable coffee cups as an alternative could reap rewards.

It’s simple, but it requires insistence.

Find out what recycling infrastructure is available to you locally

After prevention and minimisation comes recycling. Realistically, two alternatives are available depending on available local waste services:

  1. Bespoke coffee cup recycling: Some commercial waste collection providers offer bespoke coffee cup recycling in large cities with a high density of coffee shops, including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Southampton and Sheffield.
  2. Separate component recycling: In more rural areas, bespoke coffee cup recycling will be unavailable. However, if you disassemble your coffee cup after using it, you can recycle the non-composite components separately. In other words, you can recycle the cup holder (corrugated cardboard) and the lid (polypropylene) and dispose of the composite cup in the general waste bin.

💡 How to recycle the holder and lid? There are two commercial recycling options for these materials:

  • Commercial dry mixed recycling (DMR), where both the lid and holder can be disposed of together or
  • Single-stream cardboard and plastic recycling to dispose of these components separately.

Step-by-step coffee cup recycling

Regardless of how you will recycle disposable coffee cups, you must follow the proper process to make it effective:

  1. Empty and rinse: Ensure the cups are empty and rinsed to avoid contamination with coffee, tea or any paper.
  2. Disassemble cup: Separate the cup into its individual components (cup, holder or sleeve, lid) and dispose of it in the appropriate bin.
  3. Install appropriate bins: Choose the right commercial waste collection bins. Some coffee shops, offices and recycling centres in London have dedicated bins for coffee cups, which are sent to specialised facilities for recycling. If you recycle each component separately, label your bins appropriately (e.g. mixed recycling, cardboard or plastic) to ensure anyone can identify them.

💡 Training: None of these will work without the appropriate training. If you’re in charge of a business or organisation, explaining and incentivising your workforce or community on this simple recycling process is crucial.

Who produces disposable coffee cups in the UK?

Various companies provide disposable coffee cups to cafes, restaurants, and other businesses. Some of the well-known suppliers and manufacturers include:

  • Huhtamaki
  • Detpak
  • Benders Paper Cups
  • Dart Products Europe
  • CupPrint
  • Printed Cup Company
  • KeepCup

Composable coffee cup providers

Several companies in the UK produce compostable coffee cups that degrade over time. These cups are typically made from renewable resources like paperboard with a waterproof lining made from bioplastics such as polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from plants like corn or sugarcane. Some of the notable companies producing compostable disposable coffee cups in the UK include:

  • Vegware: Based in Edinburgh, Vegware is a well-known manufacturer of compostable food service packaging, including coffee cups, lids, and other catering disposables.
  • Biopak: Biopak specialises in eco-friendly packaging solutions, offering a range of compostable coffee cups and lids made from renewable materials.
  • Ecoffee Cup: While primarily known for their reusable bamboo coffee cups, Ecoffee Cup also offers a range of compostable paper cups for single-use applications.
  • Naturepac: Naturepac offers a variety of compostable and recyclable paper cups, including custom-printed options for businesses.
  • Green Gate Bio Packaging: This company provides a wide range of eco-friendly food packaging products, including compostable coffee cups and lids.

💡 Expensive: Given the established supply chains for classic disposable coffee cups, these compostable alternatives are typically as much as 50% more expensive. For instance, 8oz disposable cups by Vegware cost about 15 pence per unit without the lid, compared to traditional disposable cups costing about 0.09 pence for 500 units.

What are the environmental impacts of disposable coffee cup waste?

The sheer volume of this kind of waste is the main issue, as plastics or paperboard aren’t particularly toxic or hazardous. Here are the main environmental impacts of these non-recyclable, single-use products:

Landfill capacity and methane emissions

Large quantities of these waste types are typically disposed of as general or residual waste, typically taken to landfills when not incinerated. While this product deforms and shrinks to a small size upon compaction, it still occupies a proportion of the limited landfill capacity.

The paperboard in the cups will gradually degrade like other organic materials like cardboard or food waste, producing methane when decomposing without oxygen in a landfill. This potent greenhouse gas would be mitigated if this material was recycled instead.

Incineration emissions

The alternative to landfill is incineration or waste-to-energy, in which coffee cups are burned to reduce their volume. Paperboard, polypropene, and polyethene are carbon-based and will massively contribute to carbon emissions. While some may be prevented through filters, some will end up in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

If these materials were recycled separately, these emissions would be significantly lower.

Littering and microplastics

The huge quantities and ubiquity of single-use cups mean they inevitably contribute to litter and pollution in urban and natural environments, harming wildlife, ecosystems, and human well-being. In addition, the plastic lining in cups can break down into microplastics, which are harmful to aquatic life and can enter the food chain.

Resource consumption

The production of disposable coffee cups requires substantial raw materials, including paper (from trees) and petroleum (for the plastic lining). While many of these disposable products are partially made from recyclable items, these processes consume significant amounts of water and energy.

💡 See how it compares: Compare these to the environmental impact of other commercial wastes, to best understand it. For example, commercial electronic waste volumes are much lower, but their potential toxicity is much higher.

Transitioning into alternative coffee cups

There are three main reasons why transitioning away from single-use, hard-to-recycle coffee cups is so difficult:

It’s an established industry

The disposable coffee cup industry employs thousands of people across different economic sectors in the UK. Transforming these streams requires time, effort and willingness.


Many people have made takeaway coffee into a habit, and we know that changing established patterns requires persistent awareness, marketing and possibly economic incentives.


On average, alternative, fully recyclable single-use solutions are 50% more expensive than established single-use products. This limits these to niche businesses.

An inevitable transition

However, the tides are rapidly changing in the UK and globally. Environmental awareness and action keep growing, and social pressure keeps increasing, forcing governments like the UK to fulfil environmental and waste commitments, in line with a transition into a circular economy, to work against these blockers.

The UK government’s 25-Year Environment Plan aims to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. While this may seem like a long time, it’s only 16 years to reduce a waste stream worth 2.5 billion cups to zero. This implies a reduction of 150 million cups every year!

Commercial waste disposal

At Commercial Waste Quotes, we remain optimistic and believe businesses have what it takes to turn the waste tide around. Compare commercial waste disposal quotes to save on waste bills, and use your savings to implement the best waste management strategy possible.

Coffee cup waste – FAQs

Our business waste experts answer commonly asked questions on coffee cup waste in the UK.

Why haven’t disposable coffee cups been banned in the UK?

The bottom line is that providing disposable cups for coffee has become profitable. Suddenly, disrupting this supply chain would lead to a significant economic impact. Not to mention that consumers have gotten used to this convenience, so an alternative would have to be both recyclable and convenient. The government has focused on promoting alternatives like reusable cups and improving recycling infrastructure rather than implementing an outright ban.

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