Life Cycle Series


Confused about Coffee Cups?


The beginning of this week saw the launch of our ambitious Zero Waste program across all three SFU campuses, aiming to reduce the amount of waste we send to landfill by 70% by 2015 and bringing our material streams and targets in line with those of Metro Vancouver.  You will have noticed the new, four stream containers in public spaces across campus and should be getting used to separating your waste into the new system.

In this blog, along with our new, comprehensive Zero Waste website, we will be tackling any issues or questions about the new initiative that arise from the University community.  This week, we are focusing on coffee cups – those problematic, yet extremely numerous, items that a lot of people aren’t sure what to do with.  We have received a number of questions about these and above all, want to ensure they are disposed of in a way that won't contaminate the composting, mixed paper or recyclables waste streams.  

The challenge of dealing with disposable coffee cups is twofold:  First, this is a huge and widespread issue, with over 1.6 billion disposable coffee cups thrown out each year in Canada alone.  Second, no two cafés produce the same coffee cups – some are made from polystyrene, others from wax-coated paper, and some from compostable, plant-based materials.  And it’s not just the cup we have to contend with – there’s also the cardboard sleeve, and the lid – sometimes made from recyclable plastic, sometimes not. 

So, how do coffee cups fit into the new Zero Waste Stations initiative at SFU?  We can divide most coffee cups into three parts – the sleeve, the lid and the cup itself: 

Sleeves, made of cardboard, can go in the yellow mixed paper bin. 

Lids are a little more problematic, but most can be placed in the blue mixed recyclables bin – as long as they are plastic number 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 (check for this symbol on the lid) – number 6 is non-recyclable polystyrene.  But, on the whole, coffee lids are recyclable. 

This leads us to the most confusing part – the cup itself.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of coffee cups now in use at SFU have to go into the grey Landfill bin.  This is because they are made of polystyrene (non-recyclable) or plastic-coated paper (recycling processes are unable to separate these two materials). 

Some coffee cups can be composted – those made from compostable, plant-based material.  At present, cups at Higher Grounds and Mackenzie Café on the Burnaby Campus are made from compostable material.  Look for the clear compostable icon on these cups and place them in the green Food Scraps and Compostables bin.  But, if in doubt, throw it out – into the landfill bin. 

It would be great, of course, if all coffee cups were recyclable or compostable.  This is a global problem, with 500 billion cups of coffee sold every day.  Some progress is being made – Starbucks has pledged to make 100% of the 3 billion paper cups it serves each year recyclable by 2015, and three Cup Summits have been held bringing together municipalities, raw material suppliers, cup manufacturers, retail and beverage businesses, recyclers, nonprofit organizations and academic experts to develop solutions for recycling single-use paper and plastic cups. 

There is a long way to go, however, and the best solution would be simply to reduce the number of disposable cups produced; if you don’t use it, its waste doesn’t have to be managed.  That’s why the Zero Waste Initiative is tackling more than just disposal and is encouraging the University community to reduce the amount of waste it produces.  

Shrink your environmental footprint by bringing a reusable coffee mug to campus.  50 million trees and 33 billion gallons of water are used to produce North America’s disposable coffee cups each year, and buying just one disposable cup of coffee per day creates over 10kg of garbage each year.  So next time you have that caffeine craving – please think twice about purchasing something that will end up in the landfill in around 15 minutes – and make sure to make use of the new Zero Waste stations on campus for the rest of your waste.


UPDATE: Starting May 2016, SFU is now accepting coffee cups in the food scraps & compostables bin.  This is as a result of recent changes to provincial recycling regulations that allow SFU's waste haulers and processors to accept more materials.  The coffee cups will be composted in a commercial compost facility that is able to screen out any plastic or wax residue remaining at the end of the process.  


Waste, Education, Sustainability 101, Environment

About the Author

Originally from the UK, Rachel Telling moved to Vancouver in 2013 and is currently the Zero Waste Coordinator for the SFU Sustainability Office. For questions about SFU's Zero Waste initiative, she can be reached at

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