Have you ever stood in front of a bin, takeaway coffee cup in hand, and wondered… now what? Do I separate the lid from the cup? Recycle the whole thing and hope for the best?
Between plastic and compostable cups and lids, trying to figure out what each item is and where to dispose of it is no easy task. Depending on who you ask, you’ll probably get a few different answers, particularly when it comes to that pesky plastic lid. The ABC recently released an article stating that plastic lids are ‘generally recyclable’ in Australia, depending on your council. But, from our research, this is absolutely not the case.
Putting a Lid on Misinformation
If you’ve found yourself with a takeaway coffee cup, your first step is to identify the plastic type on the lid: #6 means plastic, PLA means bioplastic. Then, check what information is available on the cup, or on the website of the cup supplier – for example, instructions for disposal, or any compostable certifications (read more about this in our article about cup recycling). Lastly, be careful: a cup and its lid are likely made of two different materials that should NOT be disposed of in the same way.
If you’re unsure or it’s already getting too complex, then general rule is to put the whole thing, lid and all in the general waste bin – as you don’t want to risk contaminating the recycling or composting stream.
Although takeaway coffee cup lids are thought of as ‘generally recyclable’, they are usually made from #6 plastic. If you’ve never heard of plastic numbers, you aren’t alone. The plastic identification code is often mistaken for a recycling symbol, when it actually denotes the kind of plastic your item is made from. Plastic 6 refers to polystyrene (PS), a hard plastic commonly used for household items that is notoriously difficult to recycle.
Recycling facilities struggle to process and sort plastic lids, and the material is very low in value and demand. Different councils may have different rules in regards to whether they accept plastic 6 lids in their recycling stream, but it seems the overwhelming response we received is no. Moreover, we were informed that in councils where #6 plastic is accepted to be recycled, it isn’t processed in Australia, but is shipped overseas.
Sort It Out
If you can’t make out the identification code, colour is also a great indicator of whether a lid is recyclable. When plastic packaging goes into the recycling it is sorted into different types of plastics which are then baled up ready for reprocessing. Special laser technology is used to do this sorting. Black plastic is difficult for lasers to see and therefore is generally not sorted for recycling, so any black lids go straight in the bin.
We are seeing an influx of commercially compostable and ‘biodegradable’ lids in our local cafes, but unfortunately without adequate labelling or available composting facilities, these lids are often treated (and behave) like their plastic predecessors. Both people and recycling facilities have a difficult time identifying bioplastic, which should be taken to an industrial composting facility where it can break down in a specific environment.
Compostable items should NOT go in your yellow recycling bin. Additionally, in 2022 the NSW EPA released a statement asserting that compostable packaging (even certified) will not be accepted in the FOGO and in industrial composting facilities in NSW.
Referring back to the plastic identification code, compostable lids are usually labelled as Plastic 7, but this number alone doesn’t mean the item is compostable. Plastic 7 just means the material is ‘other plastic’. To check whether the item is compostable, look for the letters ‘PLA’, which stand for Polylactic Acid: a bioplastic made from renewable, plant based materials like corn and sugarcane.
PLA lids are commercially compostable, and not suitable for your home compost bin. They require high temperatures and specific conditions in order to break down, and will not decompose in landfill.
If you still aren’t certain, certified compostable cups and lids will also have logos from the Australian Bioplastics Association (see below) which will tell you whether they are home compostable or commercially compostable.
There are new certified home compostable lids that are available on the market and suitable for backyard composting. They are usually made of fibres such as paper, sugarcane or bagasse and feel like paper to the mouth. But, make sure you check on the cup itself, or on the supplier’s website that it is definitely certified home compostable before disposing it in your home compost!
What’s The Solution?
If you end up with a commercially compostable lid, you can check with your council to see if there are any waste management facilities that accept compostable packaging including cups and lids. Alternatively, there are independent private coffee cup collection services who also accept both compostable and plastic lids.
Since its inception in 2018, Simply Cups, Australia’s first coffee cup recycling program, has diverted over 36 million coffee cups from landfills, including their lids. With 1558 collection sites at the time of writing, the program collects lids made of paper, plastic and plant based materials, but only from 7-Eleven stores.
If you want to avoid recycling lids altogether, Lydy is a reusable silicone coffee lid that fits multiple cup sizes. Over a year, using Lydy twice a day can prevent 730 plastic lids from entering a landfill!
The overwhelming advice is to skip the plastic lid altogether. Regardless of what recycling solutions are created, we nevertheless have to reduce the amount of lids being produced and distributed throughout Australia. Stick to a keep cup, or in a pinch, just say no to a lid and go topless!
In collaboration with the ABC and the new season of War on Waste, our nationwide BYO Friday campaign kicked off alongside Plastic Free July with the aim of reducing waste and promoting the habit of reuse!
Content creator and social media maven, Amy keeps our Cafes and fellow waste warriors connected and updated across all of the Responsible Cafe socials. Passionate about inspiring positive change, sustainability, and performing, she can usually be found filming and editing videos with her furry sidekick, Banks!