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

Joan of Los Angeles asks:

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

Dear Joan, 

Since they’re both comprised of paper with a plastic film, it’s logical they should be equally recyclable. To explain why they're not, we’re going to have to get into the nitty gritty on this one.

Why cartons are recyclable 

Cartons are recyclable in most major cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin, because nearby paper manufacturers want the long, strong, white paper fibers sandwiched in between the carton's plastic layers. 

Those high-quality fibers are used to make new high-quality recycled paper products. 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 most cities, if cartons are accepted for recycling then you can include all kinds of cartons, including broth, soup, and those baby apple juice cartons. 

Carton Recycling Tips

Put 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 in 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 on the outside of the cup soaks into the fibers. That means cups must be sorted out and treated with an additional process to remove the ink from the fibers. 

And that takes extra processing, energy, and expense. 

A few municipalities are making a go at recycling coffee cups, namely NY, Chicago, Seattle and DC. If those areas successfully collect clean cups and process them efficiently, others may follow. 

In the end, recyclable or not, bringing your own mug and skipping the disposable one altogether will always yield the biggest benefits. 

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