Why aren't coffee cups recyclable, if cartons are?

Joan B. of Chicago asks: 

"If coffee cups aren’t recyclable because of the plastic coating, why are milk cartons OK? "

Since both cartons and paper cups are made of paper with a plastic coating, it’s logical to think they should both be recyclable. Let's break down why that's not the case. 

Why Cartons Are Recyclable 

Cartons are recyclable in Chicago because there are paper manufacturers who want the strong, white fibers that are sandwiched in between the plastic layers. Those high-quality fibers are used to make new recycled paper products and building materials. 

Cartons have only become widely recycled in the past few years. Thanks to processing advancements and industry collaboration through The Carton Council,  more than 60% of the country now recycles cartons.

In Chicago, all cartons including broth, soup, and juice cartons are recyclable in the Blue Cart.

RECYCLING TIPS:

Put the caps back on. On their own, plastic caps won’t get recycled because they’re too small to get properly sorted.

Don’t flatten cartons. Flat cartons can be misidentified by the sorting machines as paper and wind up at the wrong place.

Why Coffee Cups Aren’t Recyclable

Paper coffee cups are generally coated only on the inside of the cup so any ink placed on the outside of the cup, like logos and customer names, soak into the fibers. That means cups need to be sorted out and treated with an additional process to remove the ink from the fibers. That extra step, called de-inking, takes extra processing, energy, water, and expense. 

A few municipalities are making a go at recycling coffee cups, most recently NY, Seattle and D.C. If they're successful in collecting clean cups and processing them efficiently, others may follow. 

Do we really need paper cups anyway? 

Recyclable or not,  skipping the paper cup altogether and bringing your own provides the biggest environmental benefit. No additional resources are needed and bonus: most coffee shops, including Starbucks, offer a discount for bringing your own mug.  Small change. Big impact.

Give it a go! Check out these simple tips for Ditching Paper Coffee Cups for good. 

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