Why your PET cup won't get recycled

Apr 2, 2024

PET also known as plastic #1 is recyclable. Meaning, technically, it can be recycled.

In fact, in many places, there is a shortage of PET plastic waste. There is just not enough waste PET feedstock to meet demand by recycling companies.

And yet, your PET cup will not get recycled.

You can clean it.
You can dry it.
You can lovingly place it in a recycling bin.

It still won't get recycled. 


Take a look at the photo above. The cup on the left is made of PLA (Polylactic acid) and the one on the right is PET (Polyethylene terephthalate). 

Wait maybe it is the other way around. Is it PLA on the right? Who can tell?

Oh here's another cup: this one is PP (Polypropylene)

PP Cup

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…

PET is recyclable. PP is recyclable. PLA is not recyclable. 

Mixed plastic waste is not recyclable.

So you see the problem: you can literally see it. 

How can a worker distinguish one plastic from another as it whizzes by on a conveyer belt at the sorting center (aka MRF)?

Sorting plastic cups to high levels of purity by plastic type is an impossible task. So the cups are not picked up for bailing. 

This is unlike disposable water bottles which are easy to identify.


Such bottles are always made of PET. And because of this certainty, they have a relatively high recycling rate. Workers can see at a glance what this bottle is made of. There is no worry of mixing them up with other types of plastic.

Therein lies one of the major hurdles to actually recycling recyclable plastics: it is technically challenging to sort them.

Unfortunately there are very few disposable “post-consumer” plastic items where:

  1. it is easy to identify the material it is made of, 
  2. that material is recyclable, and 
  3. that material is in demand and can be sold to a recycler.

The most common ones that meet all these criteria include:

  • PET disposable water bottles
  • HDPE milk containers
  • HDPE detergent containers
  • LDPE bubble paper

Plastic cups are not on the list… Neither are most types of plastic containers and disposable tableware.

Ultimately, whether a recyclable item gets recycled comes down to its shape: can you determine what it is made of at a glance?

So sorry. It's not your fault. Your plastic cup will not be recycled.

Your best bet is to avoid single use plastic cups in the first place.

PS: In the first photo, the PLA cup is, in fact, on the left.

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