It’s not that disposable cups can’t be recycled; it’s that many areas don’t make the effort.
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Yesterday, NASA landed the InSight spacecraft on Mars. It’s proof that humans can do anything if they have the resources and determination to make it happen. The same logic applies to the humble coffee cup. Billions of disposable coffee cups like the ones used by Starbucks are thrown out each year, and the conventional logic is that these cups can’t be recycled because of the thin, plastic inside lining that prevents them from leaking. But whenever stories on this subject pop up, another point needs to be made: It’s not that these cups physically can’t be recycled; instead, the issue is usually that we lack the facilities and means to properly recycle them.

Proving this point, as Fast Company reports, Starbucks recently recycled 25 million of its disposable paper cups, turning the subsequent material into new Starbucks cups. The coffee giant didn’t use any sort of ground-breaking technology to make it happen; they simply got the cup to a facility that could handle the job: a Wisconsin paper mill called Sustana. The mill’s VP of Sales for North America Jay Hunsberger told Fast Company that, yes, the machinery which separates paper cup from plastic lining does need to be tweaked to run efficiently, but as long as plenty of cups keep coming in, that’s not a problem. “The material does behave a little differently, you do modify your process to be able to handle it, but if it is a consistent add into your process, then you can adapt for it and run it,” he was quoted as saying.

So if it can be done, why aren’t more people doing it? Starbucks says a bit of government intervention could go a long way to solving the problem. “Significant inconsistencies in product recyclability exist from city to city based on service models, market access and investments made in infrastructure and technology,” Rebecca Zimmer, global director of environment at Starbucks, stated. “Starbucks advocates for a national approach to provide a more consistent experience for consumers.”

Meanwhile, WestRock — the paper mill that converted the recycled fibers into new paperboard — suggested the existing mantra that cups aren’t recyclable doesn’t help either. “Part of why we’re trying to generate awareness about these activities is so other companies that own recycling centers and paper mills will begin to come on board with this, and we’ll begin to get it to scale over time,” Mike Mueller, the brand’s senior manager of product marketing, was quoted as saying.

Yes, other solutions exist — McDonald’s and Starbucks have teamed up to try to create a “sustainable cup,” and of course, you can always bring your own reusable cup — but if the billions of cups most people already use can be recycled, why not push to make it happen? It’s not like we’re trying to send the cups to Mars. In fact, plenty of other plants around the country can handle the job, so we don’t even have to send all the cups all the way to Wisconsin.