The environmentally conscious consumer may often wonder, “are single use plastic cups recyclable?”
Unfortunately, in the United States, you cannot recycle most single-use plastic cups, including iced beverage cups, hot coffee cups, or Solo® Cups, at public recycling bins or centers.
Since there is often that familiar, small triangle on plastics, we may be inclined to think that all plastics are recyclable.
However, when it comes to single use plastic cups, there is not a clear answer on whether or not they can be recycled – and if your conscience can stay clean, by avoiding contributing to a landfill.
Read more to find out which types of cups can and cannot be recycled, and how to reduce your environmental footprint concerning single use plastics.
Why is There Not a Clear Answer?
Not all plastics are treated equally when it comes to recycling.
Different states and jurisdictions have varying recycling capabilities, which are often confusing for consumers.
Plastic cups, particularly single-use cups, are especially confusing for consumers looking to recycle.
What Do the Numbers on the Bottom of Plastic Cups Even Mean?
Many people think the numbers on the bottom of plastics, encased in a triangle, indicate that they can 100% be recycled.
However, this is false.
These numbers in a triangle, often with small arrows, actually indicate the type of plastic, and help recycling centers understand which plastics they can process at their facilities.1 These categories, known as the Resin Identification Code and ranging from #1-#7, group plastics by the temperature of its material when formed.
According to National Geographic, #1 plastics are typically the most easily recycled, while #6 and #7s are increasingly more difficult.
Can I Recycle Red Solo® Cups?
Even if your plastic cup has that magic “# 6” recycling symbol on its bottom, it does not mean it can be recycled in your area.
These plastics contain a material known as polystyrene, which most recycling centers in the US aren’t prepared to break down.
Before tossing these classic cups into the recycling bin, check to see which numbers your local recycling center accepts.
If you just realized your recycling center does not accept #6 plastics, and you just threw a massive house party resulting in hundreds of discarded red cups, do not fret. Some private companies offer recycling services for these harder plastics, such as Terra Cycle, which specializes in recycling the rigid, #6 plastic cups.
Can I Recycle Single-Use Coffee Cups?
Most coffee cups are mainly made of paper, but also have a plastic inner-coating.
While this combination of materials strategically keeps your drink hot, it makes the cup hard to recycle, since the two materials must first be separated.
Most recycling centers do not have the special machine required to separate these tough materials.
This type of plastic cannot only be tough on the environment, but on your body. Hot liquids such as coffee can actually cause this plastic lining, known as styrene, to strip from the cup into your beverage.
Consuming this material has been linked to various health problems.
In contrast, disposable water bottles, typically made out of only one material, are known to be easily recycled by most recycling centers.
What About Iced Coffee Cups?
Entirely plastic cups for drinks like iced coffee are typically #5 plastics.
Despite the deliciousness of your iced drink, these cups are often not accepted by curbside recycling programs.
Iced Coffee Single Use Alternatives
Instead of ditching your iced coffee addiction, you can bring a reusable coffee cup to many local cafes, and stores as prominent as Starbucks offer this environmental incentive.
Some stores even offer a discount if you bring your own cup.
Starbucks, for example, offers customers a 10-cent discount on any drink if you provide a reusable cup.
What if My Single Use Plastic Cup is Dirty?
National Geographic recommends washing or rinsing your plastics before they are recycled.
If there is too much residue on single use plastics when they arrive at a recycling center, they may be tossed again.
For plastics to be remade into quality new products, they must be clean, and free of food residue or other substances.
Next time, before tossing the cup from your pumpkin spiced latte in the recycling bin, quickly rinse it out, so it has a second chance at life.
Are Single Use Plastic Cups Here to Stay?
More and more consumers are becoming aware that recycling is not the end-all solution to plastic waste.
Considering that disposable plastic coffee cups, Red Solo® cups, iced coffee cups, and other single use plastics are harder to recycle than the consumer once thought, many are demanding change.
In fact, many activists are demanding single use plastic bans.
Similarly, many consumers are asking for their favorite businesses to switch to glass or metal cups and cans, which can be recycled infinitely.
However, there is still corporate push back, considering that glass is more fragile than plastic, as well as more expensive.
So, Can I Recycle Plastic Cups or Not?
In summary, you cannot recycle most plastic cups at public recycling bins or centers.
However, there are still private options to recycle your tough plastics, if you are motivated to go the extra mile and use services like Terra Cycle.
If you are feeling pessimistic, there is still hope.
There is still time to invest in a reusable cup, so you can ensure that you are not adding the single use cup from your daily ‘Dunkin run to a landfill 365 days a year.