“The process is both complex and expensive [so] the cups are routed to landfills or incinerators for final disposal,” Meidl says. “When people erroneously place the coffee cups into their recycling bins, it contaminates the higher value plastic that can be recycled.”
Although a report by Clean Water Action found that manufacturing conventional polystyrene products used less energy and water than paper or cornstarch alternatives, the single-use plastic is ubiquitous in landfills where it takes thousands of years to decompose, contaminates soil and water and pose hazards to wildlife. Coffee and other hot liquids can cause styrene to leach from cups; the chemical has been linked to a host of health problems from impaired concentration and nervous system effects to cancer.
Meidl notes that technology exists to recycle polystyrene foam — though many curbside programs do not accept it in their systems — while “paper cups are notoriously difficult to recycle due to the plastic lining.”
Your Plastic Iced Coffee Cup is an Environmental Menace
The plastic cups used for iced drinks are also problematic. Most are made from polypropylene (#5 plastic) that is not accepted in many curbside recycling programs. Spill the Beans in San Diego is one of the coffee shops serving iced drinks in cups made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that is recyclable (though recycling rates for PET is less than 30 percent).
To avoid the cup conundrum, take your own mug. Coffeeshops often offer small discounts to customers who bring their own cups (at Starbucks, the discount is 10 cents). In Berkeley, California, coffee drinkers who want to take their dark roast to go will pay an additional 25 cents for their cups thanks to a new ordinance aimed at reducing single-use plastics. The fee goes into effect in 2020.
The Trouble With Coffee Cup Lids
Plastic lids might prevent spills but Meidl notes that the single-use items are typically made from polypropylene or polystyrene #6, a petroleum-based plastic that is difficult to recycle.
“Recycling and converting used polypropylene into reusable plastic is often too costly to be profitable” she says. “The sorting, cleaning, and melting of polypropylene is more expensive than creating virgin or new polypropylene lids.”
When coffee cups are tossed into the recycle bin with their lids attached, the components have to be separated before they can be processed in separate recycling streams.
Starbucks redesigned its lids to provide a straw-free sipping option, calling it an “environmental milestone,” but the new sippy cup-like lids have faced harsh criticism for using more plastic than the straws they replaced. One analysis found that the new lids added .32 to .88 grams of plastic to each drink depending on its size.
“Making cups out of single materials…does make them more recyclable [and] you could argue that integrated sippy cup could be more likely to be recycled and less likely to have straws getting into the marine environment,” Mulvihill says. “But the argument against is that you’re using more plastic than you were before and a straw in the landfill versus a sippy cup lid in the landfill is not really moving the needle.”
Skipping the lid altogether is a better alternative, which is what manager Connor Nerat sees happening at Spill the Beans, “More people are asking for no lids on their iced drinks.”