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Contrary to popular opinion, most coffee cups still aren't recyclable

Who knew?

With all the attention over the past decade on recycling and doing right by the environment, the lowly coffee cup appears to have been missed in the push to make every form of packaging reusable or recyclable.

According to the City of Toronto’s “Bad things happen” website, coffee cups do not go into your blue bin. They go in the trash.

For many of us, that’s a pretty startling revelation. Big companies like Starbucks and Tim Hortons profess to be stewards of the environment, and over the years their cups have gradually transformed into things that look and feel like they should be easily recycled.

But that’s not the case. The vast majority of their paper coffee cups are lined with plastic or wax that can’t be recycled. During a big exposé on cup recycling last year, the CBC found that the big coffee companies have contracts with their own recycling plants to recycle cups that are tossed away only in their own stores (even though they appear not to use them).

This is actually a pretty big deal. According to the experts, Canadians chug through an estimated 1.5 billion fast-food coffee cups a year, comprised of over 500,000 trees worth of paper. The amount of garbage this creates would fill 4,000 full-sized garbage trucks.

Just from coffee cups alone!

The good news is that cups do have components that are recyclable. Most plastic lids can go into the blue bin, unless they’re black. And the paper sleeves they provide to prevent burning your hands on the cup are also safe for recycling.

Back in 2010, Starbucks tried to lead the charge in making fully-recyclable cups by 2015, but despite a couple of successful pilot projects (including one in Toronto) the coffee giant still hasn’t solved the problem. Sending all the wax-coated cups in North America to a single recycling plant in Mississippi just doesn’t seem feasible.

And Toronto has looked into the problem, too, as part of the city’s long-term waste management strategy. But there hasn’t been a solution yet that makes any economic sense.

In the meantime, maybe it’s time to give the refillable cup another look.

(To view video on mobile, click here)