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Coffee Cups: How Big is the Problem

As our desire for convenience and on the go products continues to grow, single use take away coffee cups have become more popular.

Coffee cups have recently received plenty of media attention here in Ireland as revelations in the UK highlighted that only 1 in 400 were being recycled. Also, like any on the go item, coffee cups can be disposed of irresponsibly and become a source of litter. There have been recent calls for a levy to be placed on single use coffee cups in order to discourage their use.

Coffee Cups by numbers

From a recent audit that we have conducted we estimate that 550,000 cups per day are currently placed on the Irish market every year.

In the UK the government estimates that approximately 3.75 billion coffee cups will be used per year by 2025. Although our market here in Ireland is significantly smaller, if we assume that we will see a similar trend in coffee cup growth here, then it is expected that this figure will grow to more than 300 million coffee cups per year by 2025.

This is not an unrealistic projection given that between 2013 and 2014 alone, coffee consumption in Ireland grew by 7.5%.

How are Coffee Cups Made?

The majority of coffee cups are made from high wet strength papers which are lined with polyethylene (PE) on the inside to waterproof the cup and allow the container to hold a hot beverage. Without this polyethylene layer on the paper, the cup would not have enough moisture resistance and the paper would simply disintegrate after a very short period of time and cause the cup to leak.

Can Coffee Cups be Recycled?

Coffee cups are technically recyclable, however due to the way in which they are manufactured this remains very challenging and only a small number of paper mills have the technical capability to recycle them.

Unless there is capacity at these mills and it makes economic sense to divert coffee cups to them, then it may not be feasible to send them for recycling.  Although Repak encourages consumers to use reusable cups where possible and are working with industry partners to find more recyclable solutions, at present recovering the energy from these cups at a Waste to Energy facilities is Ireland’s most feasible alternative to recycling or landfill. We can then use that energy to generate electricity for local communities or as an alternative way to power our cement industry.

Why not make sure that all Coffee Cups are compostable?

Compostable coffee cups are lined with a biopolymer instead of a PE lining so that they can be composted in an industrial composting facility under specific conditions. However a large number of coffee cups are consumed on the go and end up in street litter bins, workplace offices or are discarded irresponsibly as litter and not placed into compost bins. Unfortunately publicly available compost bins are currently limited in Ireland.

How much of Ireland’s Paper Waste is Coffee Cups?

In 2015 Ireland placed over 405,000 tonnes of paper packaging waste on the market. Our overall recycling rate for paper is amongst the best in Europe and in 2015 we recycled 80% and recovered a total of 99% of all paper packaging waste.

Coffee cups make a very small percentage of this. The average weight of a coffee cup in Ireland is around 18.5 grams. This means that the 200 million coffee cups placed on the Irish market would weigh approximately 3,700 tonnes or around 0.9% of all paper based packaging placed on the Irish market. 

Team Green for Schools

Team Green is 3,400 Repak Members working together for a greener Ireland. Ireland has hit every plastic recycling target since 1997. Help us reach 50% of all plastic recycled by 2025.

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