• The Impacts of Plastic Cups on the Environment – With Biome

    August 2, 2022 • Environment

    plastic cups

    These days, it’s widely understood that single-use plastics do a lot of damage to our planet. Plastic cups are bad for the environment — this much we know for sure. Despite this scientifically proven fact, Australia alone churns through 50,000 disposable coffee cups every half hour. That’s a lot of waste. But where does it end up, and what are the immediate and long-term impacts of these throw-away items? We unpack it all here.

    Are Disposable Cups Recyclable?

    The first thing to note is that not all disposable cups are made equal.

    Generally, disposable cups are either made from paper, plastic, or styrofoam, and they appear in many different forms.

    When you pause to consider just how often you encounter a disposable cup, that 50,000 value we mentioned earlier makes a little more sense. From your takeaway coffee cup to the red cups you use at parties and the plastic water cups at doctor’s offices — disposable cups are everywhere.

    Let’s take a look at whether or not these paper, plastic, and styrofoam cups can be recycled.

    Are Paper Cups Recyclable?

    At a glance, paper cups may seem like the most eco-friendly option. After all, paper can be recycled, right?

    Unfortunately, paper cups can’t be tossed into your recycling bin along with other paper scraps.

    Paper cups actually have a thin plastic lining that is made from polyethylene. This plastic lining is what makes the paper water proof, and stops the hot beverage inside the cup from burning your hand.

    While you may be tempted to just throw your paper cup into the recycling bin regardless, this does a lot of harm down the line.

    Most recycling plants aren’t equipped to separate the lining from the paper cup. This plastic lining within the cup is considered a contimaninant. Throwing your paper cup into your recycling bin contaminants all of the other recyclable materials, so everything it comes into contact with will need to be sent to landfills instead of recycling plants.

    In other words, everything that could’ve been recycled will now end up sitting in landfills or clogging our waterways. All because of one measly paper cup.

    So, what should you do about your paper cup?

    If you absolutely mustuse a paper cup, separate it from its lid and dispose of it in the general waste bin. While this may feel all kinds of wrong, especially when your recycling bin is staring you down, it’s actually the better option.

    This way, only your paper cup will end up in landfills, and the rest of your recyclable materials can safely make their way to a recycling plant.

    Are Plastic Cups Recyclable?

    The line is a little blurry with this one. Some plastic cups can be recycled, but it depends on the type of plastic used to make the cup.

    Cups made from biodegradable, compostable, or bio-plastics cannot be recycled, as these cups are designed to break down in general waste. They will begin to decompose before they’re processed, so they can’t be recycled properly.

    Many people believe that the number and three arrows on the bottom of their plastic cup means that plastic is recyclable. This isn’t the case.

    This numbering system, which ranges from #1 to #7, helps recycling plants to sort the plastics. Generally speaking, #1 plastics are easier to recycle, while #6 and #7 are more difficult to recycle.

    Check to see which numbers your local recycling centre accepts. If they don’t accept those harder-to-recycle plastics, there are companies dedicated to doing just that.

    TerraCycle, for example, has changed the face of recycling. The team behind the company are committed to making the ‘unrecyclable’, recyclable. They offer specialised recycling schemes to ensure your disposable waste ends up in the right place.

    In other words, their work helps to avoid trash from ending up in landfills as they recycle items not usually considered recyclable by council services. They do this through their TerraCycle Zero Waste Bins.

    Essentially, depending on the type of bin you purchase (we recommend the TerraCycle Zero Waste Recycle Bin ‘All in One’, for ease), you dispose of your items into the bin and once it’s full, seal it and ship it back to TerraCycle for free. From here, they will use their specialist recycling, reusing, and repurposing services to keep your waste out of landfills.

    The All in One bin allows you to dispose of almost every kind of waste, including plastic cups and other dining disposables.

    Before you dispose of your plastic cup, remember plastic material with food or drink residue cannot be recycled, so give your cup a wash first.

    By recycling your plastic cups through your council or a TerraCycle bin, you’re making a serious difference. Plastic cups take 450 to 1000 years to break down in landfills or oceans, leaching toxic chemicals into the environment in the meantime.

    We know these toxic chemicals disproportionately affect minority communities, low-income communities, and wildlife. So, by simply putting your plastic cup in the right place, you’re doing a world of good.

    Are Styrofoam Cups Recyclable?

    In most cases, no; styrofoam cups are not recyclable. Some facilities will recycle them, but more often than not only a small fraction are reclaimed and the rest are sent to landfills or the incinerator.

    Polystyrene, the material that makes up styrofoam cups, cannot go into your recycling bin. When broken down, this material essentially explodes into tiny plastic pieces, so it can’t be put through recycling machinery.

    Much like paper cups, styrofoam cups contaminate recycling bins, so they need to be disposed of in general waste and sent to landfills.

    But before they even get there, styrofoam cups are already doing damage. Styrofoam is known to leach harmful toxins into food and beverages, particularly when it comes into contact with fatty foods, hot beverages, and alcohol.

    The United States National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences has gone so far as to state that styrofoam is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”.

    The chemicals that make up polystyrene are styrene and benzene. Benzene is considered to be carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation. When we are exposed to them, these chemicals can damage our nervous system, liver, and reproductive function.

    This is all to say that styrofoam certainly isn’t the safest material for humans to come into contact with.

    Of course, the environment is also damaged by styrofoam cups. Styrofoam never breaks down. While they sit in landfills or make their way into our oceans, these cups leach toxic chemicals into the environment which go on to damage the health of our planet, oceans, and wildlife.

    Are Plastic Cups Bad for the Environment?

    As mentioned, plastic cups are categorically bad for the environment. Whether they end up in landfills or drifting through our oceans, they leave a trail of damage behind them.

    When they find their way to our waterways, plastic cups break down into smaller pieces. These smaller fragments are then ingested by marine animals and birds. In fact, fragments of plastic have been found in 85% of all sea turtles and 43% of all marine mammals.

    Sadly, ingesting these plastic fragments is often fatal. These small plastics block animals’ digestive tracts, which means they cannot digest the food they need to survive. This eventually leads to starvation. The plastics then continue to carry along the food chain until they reach humans. It’s estimated that humans ingest 39,000 to 52,000 microplastics each year.

    The alternative is that plastic cups sit in landfills. In Australia, we go through 1.2 billion disposable coffee cups a year. About 60,000kg of plastic waste from coffee cups is directed to landfills annually. These plastic cups will stay in landfills for hundreds of years until they eventually break down — though some never will. In the meantime, they continually release toxins into the atmosphere and soil which pollutes our air and damages the earth.

    Consider how long you use each plastic cup for — it’s likely around 15 minutes. Now, this with how long each plastic cup wreaks havoc on our planet — hundreds, if not thousands of years.

    It’s clear that plastic cups do far more harm than our convenience is worth.

    Unsustainable vs. Sustainable Coffee Cups

    We now have a clear picture of which coffee cups are unsustainable. All disposable cups (paper, plastic, and styrofoam) can be broadly considered unsustainable and harmful to the planet.

    So, what’s the sustainable coffee cup alternative?

    If you absolutely must use disposable cups, opt for compostable or biodegradable varieties. But these should really be a last resort.

    Reusable cups are widely considered the antidote to the disposable cup disaster. Fortunately, you won’t be starved for choice. There are a whole host of different designs and styles to suit every beverage.

    Let’s take a look at our favourite reusable cups.

    For Your Coffee or Tea

    Enter: the rCup Small Reusable Coffee Cup.

    This coffee cup is actually made from paper coffee cups, specifically designed to contribute to the circular economy of recycling, reusing, and reducing waste.

    We love that this coffee cup will be recycled into a new product at the end of its useful life (at least 10 years). The cup is leakproof, BPA free, and dishwasher safe for ease of use. Just be sure to keep the push opening open when filling with contents over 65°C to release steam pressure.

    The design is chic and sleek too, which is a real bonus!

    rCUP Small Reusable Coffee Cup 8oz 227ml - Cream Black

    rCUP Small Reusable Coffee Cup 8oz 227ml – Cream Black

    For Your Smoothie

    The Cheeki Insulated Stainless Steel Tumbler is our top pick for your smoothies, iced coffees, and juices.

    They’re designed especially for cold drinks on hot days, providing up to 6 hours of cold insulation.

    This reusable cup is 100% recyclable at the end of its useful life, so again, you’re contributing to that circular recycling economy and keeping waste out of landfills.

    We love that this design includes a straw for easy use, and is spill safe. The cups arrive in a range of fun colours and designs, so take your pick!

    Cheeki Insulated Stainless Steel Tumbler with Straw 500ml - Pistachio

    Cheeki Insulated Stainless Steel Tumbler with Straw 500ml – Pistachio


    For Your Water

    It will come as no surprise that Frank Green is our favourite reusable water bottle.

    The bottles are a stylish, timeless alternative to single-use cups or bottles, featuring temperature control and non-slip grip.

    It takes only 15 uses to offset the production of this cup! It’s a zero-waste alternative as it’s fully recyclable. It’s also Australian owned, designed, and produced, so you’ll be supporting a local Australian business by grabbing one.

    The materials are premium, long-lasting, and BPA free, and the base is microwave safe.

    The hardest decision will be which colour to get.

    Reusable coffee cup

    Reusable coffee cup

    For Your Alcoholic Beverage

    Plastic cups are a go-to when it comes to party planning, but these reusable cups are just as convenient and planet-friendly.

    Let’s Go create reusable cups from premium quality stainless steel, designed to hold both warm and cold drinks. The cups are dishwasher safe, and free from any plastics or toxins.

    They’re also recyclable and even arrive in recyclable packaging.

    The bonus? 2% of sales go to charities supporting social and environmental causes, with 1% also going to For The Planet member.

    Let's Go Nature'al Reusable Drinking Cups Set 6

    Let’s Go Nature’al Reusable Drinking Cups Set 6

    For Your Hot Chocolate

    If a hot chocolate is your drink of choice, skip the disposable cup and use a KeepCup instead.

    KeepCups are build with an estimated life span of four years, but you will break even on its life cycle after just 15 uses. Every use after that is a bonus for the environment.

    These cups are made from fully tempered soda lime glass and are made and designed in Australia.

    Fun fact: the cork band is upcycled from the waste by-product of wine cork production in Portugal. This band protects your hand from scorching on your delicious hot chocolate.

    And, when you’re ready to say goodbye to your KeepCup many years down the line, it can be recycled in your household recycling bin.

    KeepCup Large Glass Cup Cork Band 16oz (454ml) - Almond

    KeepCup Large Glass Cup Cork Band 16oz (454ml) – Almond

    A Final Word

    While plastic cups — and most other disposable cups — are bad for the environment, we do have sustainable alternatives to turn to.

    Swap out your plastic red cups for stainless steel reusable ones. Trade your paper cup for a glass cup, and say no to styrofoam — opt for a reusable insulated cup instead.

    Every action counts. When you choose a reusable coffee cup over a plastic one, you’re helping to keep plastic waste out of landfills and our waterways. This benefits the planet, wildlife, and us humans, too.

    You can explore an extensive range of plastic-free, reusable cups at Biome.