Consumers think they’re recycling. It’s ending up in a landfill: Trash-tracking project in Denver highlights problem with Starbucks cups

Coffee drinkers toss away tens of millions of Starbucks cups each day.

But these cannot be recycled in Denver and most other cities. A thin, plastic lining that keeps coffee warm and slows disintegration sticks too tightly to the potentially valuable paper fiber. This means most of the estimated 4 billion cups a year sold by the company credited with creating the coffee-on-the-go culture worldwide end up in landfills.

Forest activists campaigning to cut consumer waste dramatized the problem this week after launching a trash-tracking project in Denver. Using golf ball-sized beacons stuck into cups, they confirmed that paper containers tossed in recycling bins at Starbucks landed in the dump.

“Consumers may think they are recycling, but it is ending up in a landfill. This bothers me,”  said Susan Gallo, part of a team that conducted the tracking for, a group based in Bellingham, Wash. “Companies need to take responsibility.”

The coffee-cup conundrum reflects rising frustrations as Americans try to recycle more of their waste in order to reduce environmental harm — from cutting down trees to contaminating oceans with plastic. When waste cannot be recycled, sorting companies send it to landfills. About 9 percent of the waste that Denver residents put in purple municipal recycling bins eventually ends up in landfills.

Since 2013, China has been scrutinizing the waste it imports from the United States, in an attempt to get a grip on ruinous pollution. Once the recipient of 30 percent of U.S. recycling material, China last year ramped up controls and banned all imports of mixed paper and plastics. Chinese authorities also set a 0.5 percent limit for impurities in recyclable materials that the country does accept. This is hammering U.S. recyclers. Some now are choking on backlogged material that once brought in money.

The trash-trackers are focusing on Starbucks because they say it is an environmentally responsible company with clout that in 2008 promised to sell only fully recyclable coffee cups. They plan to do similar tracking tests in a dozen U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and New York.

Meanwhile, Denver-based Alpine Waste & Recycling is working on its own to try to help solve the coffee-cup problem.  Alpine handles Denver’s recycling, collecting about 750 tons of recyclable waste a week, up from 450 tons a week in 2008.

An Alpine executive this week revealed that the company is negotiating with a partner to weed out coffee cups and send them to a special facility that could separate the polyethylene liner from reusable paper fiber. This would make Alpine one of the first recyclers able to accept the paper cups currently excluded from municipal recycling.

“We pride ourselves on innovation when it comes to recouping as much of the waste stream as possible. Coffee cups fall within our mission of adding materials that can be diverted from a landfill,” Alpine vice president Brent Hildebrand said Monday at the company’s plant in north Denver.

At the Waste Management Inc. sorting facility nearby, operators who once collected $80 a ton for China-bound mixed paper and cardboard said they’re now forced to pay haulers $22 a ton to remove backlogged bales.

More than 30 percent of recyclables from the United States and other countries, including half of the world’s recyclable paper and plastic, were exported to China in 2017, Waste Management spokeswoman Vicki Gomes said. “This issue affects recyclers around the world. Decreased demand from China is creating a higher global supply and putting downward pressure on commodity prices.”

For example, the price of cardboard recently fell to a nine-year low.

“It is critical to reduce the contamination mixed in with recycling,” Gomes said.

Starbucks cups are recyclable in some cities, “where supporting recycling infrastructure exists,” including Seattle, San Francisco and New York, company spokeswoman Maggie Jantzen said, calling her company’s containers “some of the most recyclable in the industry.”

“We are proud of the work we’ve done to make them greener, and we will continue to address this challenge head on,” she said.

A recent Denver Recycling analysis identified disposable coffee cups as an item that, while a relatively small portion of overall waste, “could be captured in a reasonable quantity” if the materials could be reused.

“Anytime we have the ability to add a material to our recycling program, we work very closely with our recycling processor — Alpine — to understand the markets,” Denver Recycles manager Charlotte Pitt said. “It would be great to recycle coffee cups.”

The trash-tracking began in September — around the time China was imposing new restrictions.’s team sprayed foam insulation into cups to hold their beacons — which cost about $100 each — in place. They tracked cups thrown into bins marked “recycle” at several Starbucks around the city. (Notices on the recycle bins say “no paper cups or lids” can be processed.) The trackers then used smartphones to monitor data received from six of their beacons, including one placed on a cup at a Starbucks on East 18th Avenue. It moved to a recycling center first, then to a landfill.

“Millions and millions of people every day try do the right thing by putting their cups in a bin to be recycled,” campaign coordinator Jim Ace said. “These cups are made of high-quality fiber and they could be recycled” — if they didn’t have the plastic lining.

“We are asking for innovation. Look, Starbucks, you have the most control over how your cups are made,” he said. “Demand that cupmakers come up with a material to line cups that is 100 percent recyclable.

“The more we recycle, the more fiber we are able to recover, and the fewer raw materials we need to cut down and harvest.”

For years, Starbucks has offered customers who bring in reusable containers a 10 cent discount on their beverages.

In November, Alpine took over as Denver’s recycling contractor. Alpine has pioneered development of new kinds of sorting machinery, including a robot that uses an optical scanner to pull out reusable cardboard, and an elliptical conveyor with paddles that cost more than $300,000. The deal to work with a partner to break down coffee cups isn’t done.

Hildebrand said he wasn’t aware of the tracking that monitored Starbucks cups in Alpine’s trucks.

Yet he welcomed’s push for what he called “producer responsibility.”

Developing a recyclable coffee cup “is important because of the quantity,” he said. “It is a key to better waste diversion in the future.”

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