The good news on reusable mugs and paper cups

"Recycle meeeeee!"

You may have already heard the good news: paper cups are now recyclable! That’s right—the hot cups you use for tea or coffee can now be placed in paper recycling bins. All hot cups are made with a thin plastic lining that seals them and makes them waterproof, but since plastic only comprises less than 5% of the whole cup, the cup can be recycled as paper.

Some things to note:

  • Rinse out your cup before putting it into the recycling bin in order to remove residue that could be harmful in the recycling process.
  • Wax-lined cups are still not recyclable. In order to tell the difference between a wax and a paper-lined cup, you can simply scratch the lining of the cup with a fingernail and if anything comes off under your nail, the lining is likely wax.

Of course, while this is great news, the best way to lessen your impact with your morning coffee is to use a reusable mug. The Eco-Ambassadors at University Advancement (UA) are leading the charge.

Meaghan shows off her reusable glasses

Kim Moniz, Mini Jaikumar, and Marny Ashburne recently pioneered a UA Green Team and one of their goals is to convert their office to using only reusable mugs. The UA Green Team’s founding members have been recruiting others in Advancement to join them in thinking up ways to “make University Advancement more sustainable, raise awareness of green initiatives, and encourage people to adopt habits that will help make UA more eco-friendly.”

Their first program was a Mug Drive and Raffle. The Green Team asked office members to start the New Year by bringing in reusable cups and mugs to use at work. Every person who brought in a cup or mug could then register with a member of the Green Team and receive a sticker for their mug or glass announcing that “[Name] Thinks Green.” Then every Friday for a month, the UA Green Team pulled a name from the list of people with registered mugs to win a $25 Target gift card.

Andy's mug has something to say

At the time of the last drawing, 114 people had registered a mug or reusable cup. With 171 people in the office, about 67% of office staff participated! Some final steps in the plan included encouraging office members to bring in cups and mugs from home to donate to the office so that there would be enough reusable cups and mugs for everyone. The UA Green Team is now looking into discussing with senior management the idea of eliminating the purchase of paper cups in Advancement altogether.

The Eco-Ambassadors/UA Green Team’s success really shows how far a little initiative can go and how successful office environmental campaigns can be! However, it is important to note that although paper cups are now recyclable, they are still not the most sustainable option. It is best to still try to use reusable mugs and glasses whenever possible, but now if you cannot avoid using a paper cup, at least you can remember to recycle it.


  1. Mark Cave

    Can you compost the non-wax-lined paper cups (I’m asking based on the understanding that wax-lined cups ARE compostable)? If so, wouldn’t that be peferable to recycling for used paper cups?

    Actually if composting of all paper cups is doable, then perhaps the question becomes, “Taking into account all of the lifecycle costs, which is better, reusable or paper cups/mugs?”

    – Mark Cave

  2. Dawn Quirk

    Hi Mark,
    My name is Dawn Quirk, the manager of recycling programs at Tufts. A typical paper coffee cup has a plastic coating on the inside, and would have been bleached with chlorine, which is a chemical that I do not believe should be mixed with organic materials. Compostable coffee cups and other disposable-ware purports to be made with environmentally friendly bleaching agents and coatings. That would be the reason that they are compostable, not because composting is the best end of life option. It is my opinion that the best use of a used paper cup is paper paper recycling. Most paper cups are made with high grade virgin white paper which is highly desirable for reuse. Since paper making is an environmentally damaging process, reusing existing paper fibers for another round of paper making would be best.

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