As you reach for your first delicious gingerbread or creme brûlée latte of the Christmas season, spare a thought for the fate of your disposable festive cup. While the unveiling of seasonal designs has become an anticipated moment in the run up to Christmas, as with most of the 2.5bn disposable coffee cups the UK drinks from every year, a moment on the lips equals a lifetime on the rubbish tip. The majority of disposable cups – whether they are covered in snowflakes or not – end up burned, littered, or in landfill.
Here’s what you need to know before you place your order.
The coffee companies say the cups are technically recyclable, but you might struggle to do that.
Coffee cups are made from a mixture of paper and plastic in their inner lining, which is designed to make them both heat and leakproof but makes the very hard to recycle.
HuffPost asked major UK coffee chains to confirm whether their new Christmas drink cups could be widely recycled. By widely, we meant that the cups could be included in your regular household or office recycling.
Pret didn’t directly address our question, while both Costa and Caffè Nero claimed their cups were recyclable. They are recyclable, but only if they are taken to a specialist facility.
“The Christmas cups are fully recyclable, and we encourage customers to dispose of them correctly, including leaving or returning them to a Costa store to be recycled,” a spokesperson said.
Caffè Nero added: “As is the case with our regular cup design (and most takeaway coffee cups), the cup is recyclable and we are continuing to invest in measures to ensure those cups reach the right recycling facilities to recycle them.”
Starbucks, meanwhile, said its cups could be recycled in store and that it had launched a new £1 reusable red cup for Christmas.
However, Recycle More says there are only three specialist recycling plants in the UK that can recycle this kind of coffee cup - which means while they are technically recyclable, they most likely won’t be if you throw them in with your household recycling. In fact, the organisation says 99.75% won’t get recycled.
Coffee companies have been in hot water about this in recent years and they are making some changes.
Coffee chains have come under fire, first from TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s documentary War on Waste in 2016, and more recently from MPs who pushed for a ‘latte levy’. (Although noticeably, that wasn’t included in the recent budget.) The levy would have whacked up the cost of drinks in disposable cups to discourage consumers from buying them.
Major coffee companies are starting to make changes. Costa, Pret, Starbucks, and Nero all now sell reusable cups, and will make your drink in your own reusable vessel. Customers are also able to drop off used disposable cups - from any retailer – which are then recycled at a specialist facility. Costa, Starbucks and Pret also offer discounts for drinks served in reusable cups.
Recycle Now says that is a “great start” but points out that “the reality” is people don’t consume takeaway coffee in store, where they can recycle the cup. Instead they drink then on the go.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly attributed statistics to Recycle Now instead of Recycle More. This has now been updated.