Dear Recyclebank: Can the little 3-ounce paper cups used only for small drinks of water be recycled? They are not wax coated. –Janet S.
Dear Janet: Originally developed to prevent the spread of germs, these little paper cups have become ubiquitous on bathroom counters, at public events, and in elementary school classrooms. But you’re wise to wonder what happens to them after the water’s been sipped.
Larger paper cups, such as those in which hot beverages are served, are often lined with a coating of wax or plastic to prevent leaks, which means they usually can’t be recycled. Dixie bathroom cups and other brands of 3-ounce paper cups are usually made of uncoated paper.
Unfortunately, in the case of these little paper cups, the fact that they’re uncoated also makes them tough to recycle. When the cups are used for drinking liquids, they get wet and soggy more quickly; many recycling facilities cannot or will not accept wet paper. This is because when paper gets wet, it can damage the fibers, even after they dry. If you’re using those little cups for a purpose other than holding liquid — for holding a snack, for instance, or sorting little parts of a craft project, feel free to put them in your curbside recycling bin (as long as they’re free of grease or any other residue).
Even if they can’t be recycled, paper cups might still be able to be repurposed. Use them to start seedlings, as molds for pouring plaster or soap, or to hold small pieces when you’re doing a craft or building project. Wax-free paper cups can usually be composted.
Whether or not these disposables are recyclable, compostable, or reusable, the most eco-friendly action would be to bypass them altogether. Use a glass or plastic cup for water in the bathroom, and bring your own travel bottle to use when thirst hits on the run.