For as long as I have worked in the food-service industry, I have heard the same question. “Is my coffee cup recyclable?”

So, the short answer is no – they’re not.

Unfortunately, the majority of coffee cups are made with a liner that consists of polyethylene (plastic). This liner keeps the cups from deteriorating while you are drinking from them. The liner does eventually break down over time (if you’ve ever left a soda cup in your car, you know what I’m talking about), but because of the liner it makes them neither recyclable or compostable. The plastic lids however can be washed well and recycled.

There are many different kinds of cups now on the market that are claiming to be completely compostable, plastic lid and all! This is GREAT news if you have a backyard composter and are composting these yourself. However, the downside to this is that if you’re in the Annapolis Valley area, Valley Waste Resource Management has no indicators to tell the compostable cups apart from the regular cups. So, unless your establishment has specific permission given to you by the VWRM and more specifically their compost council, your compostable cup is likely ending up in the landfill.

Now the even worse news is that if you don’t have permission from the compost council, then your compostable cups are not even recyclable! This is due to the fact that the softer plastic is meant to break down more quickly – hence it being marketed as being compostable. Unfortunately, this softer plastic will compromise the break down process in your regular recyclables. In the end? Headed to the landfill.

So, all of this being said, what can we do about this? Well if you’re a business owner in the Annapolis Valley, make sure that you have a clearly labeled bin for your new compostable cups, and follow through with Valley Waste Resource Management to obtain the permissions needed to compost your new cups. When I spoke to an employee at VWRM they said that the lids and plastic cups would likely be considered regular garbage, so make sure that your new compostable bin is specific to paper cups only.

It will likely take regular reminding to your customers that the cups are only compostable when picked up from your location, and because they are take out cups, this will take extra effort on your customers part. It would be worthwhile as well to encourage your customers to bring their own reusable mug, creating even LESS waste!

As a customer – bring your own reusable mug if you can. If you do end up purchasing take out and wind up with a compostable cup, make a note to drop it off at the location you purchased from next time you’re in town. Remember that the plastic lid is not compostable or recyclable here in the Annapolis Valley. If you have a backyard composter that is even better! Fire the whole thing in there and forget about it.

So, I guess the question for business owners is – is this all worth it? Do you think that customers will take the extra time and effort to return the cup to your location? Is the higher price worth purchasing a product that is potentially ending up in the landfill? It’s certainly a lot to think about, in the meantime cross your fingers that our facilities soon upgrade to allow more compostable take out products to be utilized!


The photo on the right was taken by the group “Nova Scotia Beach Garbage Awareness” on Facebook. Thank you to Karen Jenner for the photo! This is what happens to cups once the outer paper wall has deteriorated. What you can see remaining is the inner plastic wall that keeps the structure of the cup.