British Columbia

Lid off, liquid out, dump cup: New bins aim to solve how to recycle coffee containers

Five coffee cup recycling bins have been installed at commercial and public buildings in downtown Vancouver in a pilot project to curb landfill waste.

5 bins installed at downtown commercial and public buildings in pilot project to curb landfill waste

The coffee cup recycling bins are part of a six-month pilot by Return-It, the organization that leads the B.C. beverage recycling program through its depots. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

At one of five new recycling bins in downtown Vancouver, throwing out a coffee cup takes three steps:

  • Take off the lid and place it into the slot.
  • Pour out that lukewarm concoction pooling at the bottom.
  • Toss the empty cup into the blue opening.

The cup recycling bins are part of a six-month pilot launched Monday by Return-It, the organization that leads the B.C. beverage recycling program through its depots.

Coffee cups are already collected and recycled through B.C.'s residential recycling program.

But about 2.6 million paper cups end up in landfill each week, according to the City of Vancouver. And half of those cups come from commercial and public buildings.

Why separate coffee cups?

Allen Langdon, president of Return-It, said the bins, placed in select downtown Vancouver office and public buildings, are meant to curb that landfill waste and avoid contamination.

Coffee cups are especially tough to recycle because they can be made of different materials and have a coating on the inside to keep liquids from soaking through the paper.

It takes a special process to separate those paper fibres and make new products, according to Return-It.

About 2.6 million paper cups end up in landfill each week, according to the City of Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Most residential programs turn coffee cups into tissues or toilet paper, but the materials collected in the pilot will be used to develop new recycled products.

The bins accept all types of coffee cups, including plastic, multi-laminate and plastic-lined paper.

The pilot is backed by Metro Vancouver, as well as A&W and Tim Hortons. The City of Vancouver is providing building access and maintenance staff.

What about compostable cups?

In 2019, Starbucks announced greener to-go cups in Vancouver that it says are both recyclable and compostable.

But the City of Vancouver says paper cups lined with plastic that are labelled as compostable are not accepted in the city's Green Bin Program.

"These materials contaminate existing composting and are not approved for composting under provincial regulation," said Kai-lani Rutland, a spokesperson for the city's zero-waste initiative.

Langdon says the best-case scenario when composting is that the paper cup breaks down — but Return-It wants to use the materials again.

Once the six-month pilot wraps up, a final report will be issued with recommendations, including whether to keep the bins permanently.

The bins have been installed at:

  • 701 West Georgia St. (Pacific Centre Plaza)
  • 777 Hornby St.
  • 300 West Georgia St. (Library Square)
  • 350 West Georgia St. (Library Square)
  • 401 Burrard St.

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