Runners love their coffee, and during races they need water and other hydration drinks. The most popular method for delivering the drinks continues to be paper cups. And why not? They’re inexpensive, lightweight, and do their job well. And they’re often provided free to races by sponsors such as Absopure.

But the standard cup is lined with polyethylene (PE) – a plastic – to seal the seams and waterproof the paper. The lining makes the cup difficult to recycle. At paper mills that aren’t set up to screen out PE, it can gum up the machinery. Entire bales of paper containing cups could be rejected and end up in a landfill or incinerator. And that’s a shame, because the paper itself is high-quality pulp that is very useful when recycled.

PE-lined cups cannot be composted, either; the PE does not break down into compounds that are useful in soil. Too bad, as cellulose pulp can serve as useful “brown matter” in compost piles.

So if a running event, or any drink provider for that matter, wants to follow sustainable practices and try for Zero Waste, what’s to be done?

One way is to follow the lead of many trail races and make them “cupless.” Runners must bring their own bottles or other form of container. Trail runners are used to carrying water bottles or hydration packs, so they aren’t inconvenienced much, if at all.

At road races, by contrast, from the 5K to the marathon, paper cups remain an expected staple. Runners at shorter events, where speed is key, don’t want to carry extra weight or bulk. And the aid stations with ready-to-grab cups of water or Gatorade are a tradition, as are the volunteers with brooms tasked with keeping the road as clear as possible.

Earth Day Marathon mem - cups in road

So while single-use paper cups are an awfully inefficient use of resources, they aren’t going away anytime soon. So alternatives are being pursued to at least make them more recyclable, or compostable. Here are a few new initiatives.

Alternative coatings

triocup.jpgA new type of cup is being tested in some New York coffee shops. Known as the “TrioCup” it has two novel features for a hot cup: no plastic liner, and built-in folds that do away with the need for a separate lid. That’s cool. It is currently lined with PE like standard paper cups, but I was told in an email that they hope to evolve to compostable or more recyclable coatings. Read more about the TrioCup here.

reCUP+for+recyclabilityAnother approach is the reCUP, which has a mineral-based coating the manufacturer claims is recyclable. Called “EarthCoating,” the cup is recyclable, but not compostable. ReCUPs can be ordered now. Specific pricing information was not available (you need to call them), but the website says their prices are within 5 percent of traditional paper cups. Also, the minimum order is 25,000 cups. Read more about the reCUP here.

Improving recycling capability

The James Cropper paper mill in the U.K. has invested millions of pounds in a recycling facility that can process PE-coated cups. And while it has a capacity of up to 500 million cups per year, it’s currently processing only 10 million. Distribution, not supply, appears to be the bottleneck. Over 2.5 billion disposable cups are used in the U.K. per year, but only a fraction are recycled. But the U.K. government has decided to continue to follow their commitment to reach 70 percent recycling by 2030, so the incentive is there to get more cups to where they can be recycled.

PE-lined cups can also be recycled in some areas in the U.S. But you have to check each locale to find out if their recycling facility accepts them or not.

Going compostable

World Centric and other companies make hot and cold cups certified compostable in commercial facilities. They do this by using plant-based materials and cup linings such as PLA, which is derived from corn or sugarcane.

As much as I like compostable cups, they do have some drawbacks at present. First, PLA cups are NOT recyclable. In fact, they will contaminate the plastic recycling stream. So users of these cups need to know this.

It’s also difficult to find a collection bin or site for compostable cups. At races serviced by Happy Planet Running, we check each cup and put it in its appropriate waste stream. So compostable cups go in with the food waste and are collected by our commercial composting provider.

Zero Waste at the 2018 Super 5K. At this event, we were able to recycle the PE-lined water and coffee cups.

But compost canisters at retail establishments are rare, which means that recoverable material ends up in the landfill anyway.

I’ll end this post with one example of a coffee shop that goes above and beyond. That Early Bird in Grand Rapids, MI, uses compostable coffee cups and has separate waste bins for compost, recycling, and trash. The employees sort the bins at the end of the day to make sure they contain the correct materials.

That Early Bird coffee shop - compostable cups
World Centric compostable cups at the cafe. All their “to go” materials are compostable. For dining in, they use actual plates and cups.

I asked the manager how the staff feels about this extra effort. “It’s just part of the way we do business here,” he said. “And we feel good doing the right thing.”

I can only hope for, and encourage, more such establishments to do the same!