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 or 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 that credited with creating America’s coffee-on-the-go culture 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

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