to-go coffee cup: recyclable or no?

starbucks cup overflowing out of the lid of an orange street trash can

Lion / Pixabay

To recycle or not to recycle? That is the panic-inducing question we are all faced with after finishing our coffee to-go. 

From celebrity photoshoots to influencer feeds to slipping past final production edits on period dramas, disposable coffee cups are everywhere. Especially a Starbucks cup. 

In fact, 1 million single-use cups are trashed every minute!

So what are you supposed to do? It’s (unfortunately) complicated. 

The thing is, recycling single-use poly-coated disposable coffee cups is possible, but only in about 40 facilities concentrated across the midwest and east coast. 

If you live in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Chattanooga, Louisville, Denver, Atlanta, Detroit, Madison, or Chicago — recycle your to-go coffee cups in the bin. If not, keep reading, get in touch with your city, or check the list (which isn’t fully updated). 

in most cases, no, to-go coffee cups are not recyclable 

When in doubt, reach out. 

Seriously, for this article, I reached out to the Department of Streets and Sanitation to clear up my confusion around paper cup recycling and I was answered fairly quickly! 

Always make sure your final check is with your municipality/specific recycling facility to confirm what types of plastic are accepted — at the minimum, most have an infographic or chart that’s easily accessible and readable. 

Hot disposable coffee cups

Dunkin and Starbucks disposable coffee cups are not recyclable. 

  • Disposable coffee cups are lined with plastic to keep your liquids hot and prevent the paper cup from breaking down. This is true of most disposable coffee cups, even PLA-lined cups. 
  • Starbucks paper coffee cups cannot be recycled even if the plastic liner is biodegradable and it has a recycling symbol. (it’s not that materials aren’t recyclable, it's that many facilities don’t have the technology to do it). 
  • Starbucks, Dunkin, and other coffee cup lids are generally recyclable (#5 or #6 plastic). Note that recycling facilities have trouble sorting out black plastic so it’s likely it's getting sent to the landfill.  

All coffee sleeves are recyclable.

Cold disposable coffee cups are probably recyclable 

#5 plastic, polypropylene, is recycled in most facilities but not all. Do a quick Google search to see if it’s accepted in your area. 

  • Starbucks strawless cold plastic cup lids are (probably) recyclable (polypropylene, #5 plastic)
  • Starbucks iced coffee/cold cups are (probably) recyclable (polypropylene, #5 plastic)
  • Dunkin cold cups are (probably) recyclable (polypropylene, #5 plastic) 

Note on the compostable of it all: Your coffee cup needs to have a certified compostable label to be compostable. And even then, it most likely refers to an industrial compost which is different from a backyard compost. 

definitely recyclable 

  • Plastic lids for hot and cold cups
  • Cardboard sleeves

probably recyclable

  • Cold plastic cups (we couldn’t find the material so you’ll have to confirm on the bottom of your cup and make sure your district accepts it). 

definitely not recyclable 

  • Disposable hot coffee cups (even if they have the recycle symbol)
  • Paper or plastic straws
  • Styrofoam 

To recycle your coffee cups (and anything else) properly give your cup/item a quick rinse. It doesn’t have to be sparkling clean but it’s better for the recycling facility if it’s not totally dirty. 

anatomy of a to-go coffee cup

single use coffee cup anatomy illustration

Image from Republic Services

The first disposable cup that would later go on to be the Dixie cup, came around in the early 1900s. 

In the 60s, convenience stores, led by 7-eleven, started offering cups specifically for commuters and by the 80s, Starbucks started expanding and standardizing the commuter cup and lid that sped up the process of getting you to work, caffeinated. 

The modern day coffee cup looks something like this: 

  • Coffee collar (recyclable). Usually made from recycled or recyclable cardboard.
  • Outside cup layer (recyclable). Usually made from virgin and bleached paperboard. Often contains a small portion (10-25%) of recycled paper. 
  • Inside cup layer (not recyclable). It used to be made from wax but now it’s mostly made from polyethylene, polypropylene, or PLA (polylactic acid) which are all plastics. PLA is a bio-plastic that is not accepted in most composts at this moment. 
  • Lid (not recyclable). Disposable lids for coffee cups are made from polystyrene which is the same plastic that makes styrofoam. Usually it’s a #6 plastic which you’ll have to see if your local facility takes. 
  • Straw (we know this). Nope, and despite Starbucks designing a super special lid that doesn’t require straws this is really hard for people to let go of.  

Paper obviously does all of the things. It’s a very recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable material. So why can’t it be recycled? 

why can’t paper coffee cups be recycled? 

Because a paper coffee cup is not just paper. Things have been added to it to make it liquid and temperature-proof. 

You’ve seen what ketchup does to a paper ketchup cup — imagine what would happen to your coffee without that plastic liner. When we combine that very biodegradable paper with very fossil-fuel based plastic and shape it into a cup designed for one time use, things get complicated. 

  1. The facility needs to be able to collect and separate plastic-lined cups from other waste which is not as common as you’d think. They’re already having a hard time separating items from single-stream. 
  2. The technology does exist to recycle paper cups but very few cities (like 11) in the US have facilities with these capabilities. 
  3. There needs to be an end market for the material. The recycling facility needs to be able to sell it to someone who can turn it into another product (tissues, more coffee cups, etc). 
  4. All of this needs to happen at a reasonable price point because capitalism requires money and profit. 

So yes, technically the technology exists yet still 99.75% of disposable paper cups (in the UK) don’t get recycled

It’s expensive to completely redo a facility. Our recycling system in the U.S. has never fully recovered from being dependent on China for so many years. It’s almost like we’re starting over. 

For anything to happen, people like us need to be the driving force behind it. 

don’t forget the environmental effects of disposable coffee cups

to-go coffee cup pollution


With all the disposable coffee cups that pass our line of vision everyday, it’s easy to visualize alll of them going into a landfill. What’s right in front of our faces feels like a lot, right? 

But what about everything we don’t see? 

  • Landfill waste
  • Resource depletion (water, trees, land)
  • CO2 emissions
  • Microplastics

Coffee is the most consumed beverage in developed countries. The earliest trace we have of coffee comes from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen yet today the Global South grows and harvests the vast majority of it. 

The coffee industry remains an industry full of human and environmental exploitation.

Coffee employee verifying the quality of of beans

DFID - UK Department for International Development/ Wikimedia Commons 

It is frequently called out for:   

  • Child labor 
  • Low wages, often less than minimum wage
  • Slavery through forced labor to repay debts
  • Unethical wage practices such as being forced to shop at company owned stores with inflated prices 
  • No employee benefits or overtime
  • Animal exploitation
  • Environmental effects such as reduced soil quality, clearing large areas of land for plantations, increased usage of fertilizers, chemicals, fungicides to keep up with demand. 
  • Water pollution due to uncomposted waste and coffee processing. 

The industry is worth a discussion for another time. But for now, when disposable cups go to the landfill they will not degrade. Nothing degrades in a landfill. They will sit and leach microplastics and chemicals for years.  

Every single coffee cup requires: water, trees, fossil fuels (plastic), and bleach. The world’s 500 billion disposable coffee cups a year require: 

  • 290 billion liters of water (76.7 billion gallons)
  • 20 million trees are cut down for single-use coffee cups each year.  
  • 200 billion grams of petroleum (440 million pounds)
  • 3.7 billion pounds of waste comes from just the production stage of disposable coffee cups. 

The carbon emissions of the disposable cup industry are roughly the same as providing electricity to every single house in Paris (5,155,366 houses/30.4 million tonnes of C02e). 

And it doesn’t stop there. Studies show that plastic coffee cups could also be bad for your health. 

microplastics are present in disposable coffee cups

Microplastics are essentially the worst. 

One of the reasons we wanted to use ocean and ocean-bound plastic was to keep polluted plastic from breaking down further into tiny microscopic pieces of plastic. 

  • Microplastics cannot be filtered or cleaned 
  • They will hang around for thousands of years. 
  • They pollute the environment with toxic chemicals
  • They pollute the ocean
  • They work their way up the food stream into our bodies

Microplastics in our food containers are especially not great. 

A 2020 study revealed exposure to hot liquids triggered the release of microplastics from the plastic lining in paper cups. 

  • This happened within 15 minutes. 
  • Toxic heavy metals were found in the plastic film and transferred into the beverage with the exposure to heat. 

While it’s true that we (the scientific community) don't know what the effect of exposure to microplastics is, we at ( r e ) ˣ think it can’t be great. 

the Starbucks of it all

a trashcan literally overflowing with starbucks and to-go coffee cups

Joel Gillman from Minneapolis, USA/ Wikimedia Commons

Now, not all paper coffee cups are trash, just most of them. Many companies are working to develop a better material and a better design. 

  • PLA is a plant-based plastic. Unfortunately it’s not accepted in many facilities and remains enough of a plastic to require the special technology to separate the plastic from the paper. 
  • Sugarcane based cups lined with PLA, requiring zero tree paper. 
  • Cups made from renewable plant based materials that are certified compostable.  

The problem is you don’t know. Starbucks cups still contain the recycle symbol despite not being accepted in the majority of facilities. 

And while they’ve done some good things like avoiding styrofoam, ending ‘double cupping’, creating a strawless lid — most of those things were done because it’s what consumers cared about. 

As one of the biggest companies in the industry, they have a responsibility to look for sustainable solutions. 

  • Sustana Fiber and three other supply chain partners demonstrated to Starbucks that their cups could be recycled and turned into new cups back in 2018. 
  • They were able to manufacture 100% recycled products that were FDA compliant, economically viable, and totally circular. So where are they?

The Starbucks Global 2023 report mentions they have a few sustainable initiatives (page 15) but none of them mention Sustana or these findings: 

  • Starting in 2024, customers in the U.S & Canada will be able to use their personal reusable cups wherever they order.
  • They’re testing reusable and returnable programs (but the cup looks plastic).
  • They’ve launched a new hot cup that includes 30% PCRF
  • But they’ve abandoned their 2022 goal for 100% compostable and recyclable hot cups and replaced it with a “more sustainable” cup made with less paper and less plastic.  

We need more. More research, more voices, more accountability. 

We can have the most sustainable, compostable product but if it’s overproduced and overused it’s still not sustainable

embrace reusables: the obvious solutions to the disposable coffee cup

a line up of 4 different kinds of reusable to-go coffee cups curtesy of Lauren, the author

author Lauren's personal to-go cup collection

Reusables are the way to go. We just need to get used to having them and prioritizing them.

  • BYO mug when you get coffee.
  • Stay for a while and opt for a regular reusable mug.
  • Go European and drink your espresso in 5 out of a reusable mug then skedaddle.
  • Advocate (and use) reusables. 

We’re not here to tell you what to do or list our 10 favorite to-go cup alternatives. There are literally so many and you should use whatever is going to help you use it the most.

We’re just here for some encouragement. You got this!

  • It’s okay if you forget
  • It’s okay if you ‘mess up’
  • It’s okay if your life doesn’t allow it for awhile 
  • It’s okay if you don’t do it for a month (or two)
  • It’s okay if you always forget to clean your cup and get afraid to open it 👀

Start back up again whenever you can. 

local might be the answer to sustainable coffee cups

Consider supporting local cafes! 

They're often open to discussing eco-friendly options like reusable mugs. While reusables require washing, their lifespan vastly outweighs disposables, making them a sustainable choice.

Heal the Bay in California, has helped to propose a bill to require reusable cups at dine-in restaurants. They estimate that washing a mug 500 times uses about 53 gallons of water whereas the production of 500 paper cups uses 370 gallons of water. 

final thoughts on non-recyclable coffee cups and disposability culture at large

Everytime you get $.10 or $1.00 off your order for bringing your reusable — that gets entered into the data. Companies can see as more people bring their reusables more often. Your actions do matter. 

Recently I’ve been listening to a podcast called The Sustainabilitea. They talk about sustainability but the thing I love is “the tea”. The hosts talk with each other and their guests about actions that aren’t sustainable, things they’ve slipped up on, or just changes they’re unwilling to make. 

Obviously it’s all in good fun and not to shame (in fact, I was a guest on the pod!) but we think this is an incredibly important message to be spreading. 

Although it feels like it at times (all the time), sustainability is NOT about being perfect, it’s about doing something, one thing to change your habits. 

But let’s be clear, the responsibility to save the planet is not yours. It’s not going to happen when we all stop using dish sponges. It will happen when we all care

Starbucks responded to societal pressure in the 80s and avoided styrofoam even though it was the cheaper option. Again in 2018, they responded to the backlash about straw pollution and invented a brand new lid that didn’t require one. 

Change is possible and it can start with you. 


As always, shop our recycled plastic hangers next time you need some! 

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