Sad Demise of the Paper Coffee Cup

The bean counters at the World Wildlife Fund found that it takes more than 200 litres of water just to produce one cup of latte coffee (see flash presentation below).

Water wastage is only one aspect of the total environmental impact. Another alarming facet is the amount of solid waste produced by the ubiquitous throwaway paper cup — the most unnecessary environmental side effect of the coffee craving.

This is known, by the environmentally astute, as the “paper cup problem”.

Paper cup problem

Everyday many of us decide to take our coffee away in a paper cup. It is easy to imagine the environmental consequence of this decision — billions of cups, millions of trees and tons of greenhouse gases (estimates vary) every year.

The word “paper” might suggest that the paper cup is easily recycled and that it is not as bad as its plastic cousin. However, most paper cups are coated with a plastic resin (i.e., polyethylene) for durability and convenience, therefore making both their composting and recycling uncommon and raising the specter of carcinogenic chemical leeching.

According to one study on the environmental impacts of paper cups, each cup, taking into account the paper, the paper sleeve, production and shipping, emits about 0.11 kilograms of CO2.

Depending on forestry practices (and whether they are sustainable or not) paper cup production results in loss of trees, ecosystem degradation and a reduction in the planet’s carbon absorption capacity.

In our world of shrinking forests and growing landfill, continued use of the paper cup is both redundant and unsustainable.

Changing the way we think about coffee

Every aspect of the coffee industry has been a prominent target of environmental and social justice campaigners who seek to inform people about the impacts that their daily habits have on other parts of the world.

Awareness campaigns encouraging people to drink fair-trade coffee have reached mainstream usage, even in some instances through the most vilified of coffee chains.

Interestingly, bioplastics, derived from corn, sugar cane and other renewable biomass resources, are emerging as a clever way to reduce our coffee footprints.

Corn-based plastic (polylactic acid — PLA) coffee mugs in particular have been gaining popularity with drinkers. One example we know about is Micup (let us know about others).

They can help reduce coffee-related waste, reduce dependence on carbon-based inputs, such as oil, and can be disposed of in closed loop recycling programs — that is, programs that convert waste to make other products.

Admittedly there is a small carbon footprint from reusable bioplastic mugs through their production and also from rinsing in hot water. Furthermore, unsolved problems, including the fact that recycling plants may not yet be equipped to handle PLA, are contributing to consumer confusion.

Nonetheless, one reusable mug is obviously a better option than dozens if not hundreds of disposable cups.

Usable re-usables

Drinking your coffee in the shop is the best thing you can do … the coffee just seems to taste better!

Realistically, significant reduction in the impacts of paper cup consumption requires solutions that fit the current lifestyles and habits of coffee drinkers.

Reusable and recyclable cups are the future for all on-the-go coffee aficionados. It’s certainly an issue people want to talk about, as the 1200 + blogs about paper cups and the lack of convenient alternatives can attest.

One problem with alternatives, such as flasks and thermoses, is that many mugs do not fit under the spout of different coffee machines used in retail outlets and cafés. But surely that can’t be too difficult to find a work around for.

Additionally, in order to maintain market share, some retail outlets make it harder than it needs to be for customers to use other brands of bring-your-own coffee mugs. But as demand increases the clever coffee makers will soon realize that they have to change.

Attempts by retailers to enforce brand loyalty can stifle people’s desire to bring their own cup and have prevented larger scale environmental mitigation from taking effect to date.

The time is ripe for patrons to shun the paper version and insist instead on wielding a smart and reusable vessel. This way coffee drinkers can lead change themselves, rather than waiting for it to happen.

So what are you waiting for?

Creative Commons License
Sad Demise of the Paper Coffee Cup by Raj Raghavan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/storm-in-a-paper-cup/.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION BELOW

Authors

Raj Raghavan is a project manager with experience in the IT sector currently working with indigenous communities in Australia on community development projects.

He believes that individuals and communities can solve their own problems through their own creativity and hard work, and is passionate about sharing those stories to inspire others to drive social and environmental change.

Mark Notaras is a member of the Sydney Slow Food convivium and accompanied the Australian delegation to the 2014 Salone del Gusto/Terra Madre. The views expressed here are his alone and not those of Slow Food or any affiliated organization.

Join the Discussion

  • eventsupplies2

    I think there is slightly more to the situation, you would need to reuse a ceramic cup a huge amount of times just to break even with the energy used to produce a simple paper cup. In many ways it is a case of swings and roundabouts..Robert DanielPaper Cups

  • http://best-coffeemaker-reviews.com/cuisinart-dcc-1000.html Best Coffee Maker Reviews

    Being a coffee lover that I am, I hate to see how it is destroying our environment. I think the best solution to this is to brew our own coffee at our own homes instead of buying from starbucks, peet’s, etc. That way we could reduce the water wastage and paper being thrown away.

  • Emile

    Paper cups are not about to go away. As concerned as I am about the eco aspects of our habits, I have to admit that paper and styro do not have viable alternatives yet, all things considered. The problem with paper cups is not so much what it takes to produce (overall it is still the most eco-friendly alternative to all else, we just have to read a bit more widely to realize that), but the relative inability of the recycling industry to deal with two challenges – 1/ coupling of the paper cup with plastic lid, which makes separation at the material recovery facilities difficult and ineffective; and b/the relatively small volume of recyclable material the paper cups represent in the grand schema of things, is a deterrent for the paper recovery industry to invest in machinery for stripping the poly coating from cups so that clean prime fibre can be recovered and reused. I believe the solution is in coming up with technological inventions to resolve these.

  • Payton

    This article is nice, but the presentation was complete nonsense. It takes nowhere near 50gallons to produce one cup of latte including all that goes into producing the paper cup it goes into. I find it interesting they failed to reveal where they got their data from, they merely pray on peoples gullibility and willingness to believe anything they hear or read simply because someone says it’s true.

  • marknotaras

    It looks like the Republican party, now in control, has brought back one-use cups to the US Congress cafe.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/28/republicans-foam-coffee-cup-environmentally-bad

  • Nanandjames

    Hello,
    One thing I haven’t read is that even if you bring your own mug, the coffee place uses a paper cup anyway to measure the size of your drink!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5203965 David Mullin

    And after the people at the paper plants, factories, and farms lose their jobs from the decreased demand, the government won’t have any tax dollars to invest in renewable resources.   This article also assumes people never throw out their reusable cups, but they do and often because they don’t last, people lose them, or ruin them in the dishwasher.  How much water does it take (or is polluted) to make steel cups, plastic cups, the rubber around the lid, the plastic lid, etc.?  We need a solution but outside of everybody putting their mouths right up to the faucet, this video is nonsense.