Ask Eartha: The recycling conundrum of the to-go coffee cup |

Ask Eartha: The recycling conundrum of the to-go coffee cup

Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily
New signs are going up on public trash and recycling bins in Breckenridge to help people know which items can be recycled and which ones cannot. A recent town waste audit found that the public recycling bins on Main Street are often being contaminated with trash with coffee cups being one of the most problematic items.
Eli Pace /

Dear Eartha,

What’s the skinny with paper to-go coffee cups? Can I recycle them?

— Jeffery, Breckenridge

The confusion about recycling continues – and it’s no surprise that you have questions about coffee cups. If you’ve recently forgotten your reusable coffee mug and found yourself desperate for a mid-morning pick-me-up, you’ve likely asked for a to-go cup from your local café. No problem, you may think, its paper and I’ll just recycle it along with other paper and fiber products. As always, the recycling devil is always in the details.

According to a study done by the Town of Breckenridge, 50 percent of the contamination in the town’s public recycling receptacles comes from coffee cups and lids. When contamination rates are this high, none of the materials in that bin are being recycled. Instead, everything ends up in the trash.

Most to-go cups are made from virgin fiber and polyurethane, the plastic coating that prevents liquids from making the cup too soggy to hold its shape. And making cups with recycled paper is perceived as a health hazard. So, of the one trillion disposable coffee cups that are manufactured each year (that’s 70 cups for every person on the planet), the vast majority is made from virgin paper and destined for landfills. Not only that, but they’re dragging perfectly good recyclables down with them. In Summit County, you cannot recycle coffee cups or lids. To make matters worse, just over the pass in Vail, you can recycle coffee cups (but still no lids). So what gives?

There has been a lot of pressure on manufacturers and coffee companies to figure out a way to recycle their to-go cups. Recycling paper cups requires the buy-in from material recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort, process, and sell the material as well as mills that have the equipment and capability to capture valuable components of the product. Currently, there are only 12 mills in the US that are able and willing to recycle paper coffee cups and a similar number of MRFs willing to process them. Alpine Waste and Recycling (a MRF in Denver) has partnered with a mill in De Pere, Wisconsin called Sustana to accept used coffee cups for recycling as part of a pilot project that includes Eagle County and City of Denver. But not all MRFs are the same. Our recycling in Summit County goes to a different MRF in the Front Range, and that MRF is not participating in the pilot program.

While news about opportunities to recycle disposable coffee cups is a good thing, the simple fact is that over one trillion disposable cups are produced each year, and the vast majority of them end up in the landfill. A much bigger question (and solution) is how to move away from the disposable, to-go, consumerist mentality that leads to the demand for one trillion coffee cups being produced in the first place. How can we incentivize the public to bring their own mugs and stop the flow of coffee cups to the landfill?

Just a few weeks ago, the city of Berkley, California unanimously voted to approve a disposable foodware ordinance that includes a 25 cent fee charged to patrons for every disposable cup used. Customers avoid the fee if they bring their own cup. Closer to home, BreckFast on Airport Road in Breckenridge is proposing a new program that allows patrons half off the price of a cup of coffee if they bring their own mugs. In addition, leaving your mug for use at the restaurant will earn you two more free drinks! What a fun and creative solution to single use cups. I challenge other local businesses to offer similar incentives, and I challenge you, dear reader, to BYO bottle, mug and bag next time you head out on the town.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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