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 video 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

Every day 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/.

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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 was a writer/editor of Our World 2.0 for the United Nations University (UNU) Media Centre from 2009–2012. He is a former researcher in Peace and Security for the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP). He holds a Masters in International Affairs (Peace and Conflict Studies) from the Australian National University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) and in 2013 completed a Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Currently Mark works in Timor-Leste advising local NGOs on community agriculture and conflict prevention projects.

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  • 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

    • The funny thing with this argument is: you would NEVER hear that argument used in favor of restaurants serving food on paper plates! You would never say, “Gosh, it takes so much energy to produce a plate, so restaurants should not buy any more re-usable plates and use only paper plates.” Bottom line, restaurants and cafes can afford to buy, and to promote the use of, “for-here” mugs whether ceramic, stoneware, glass, china, or as they please — but a mindless addiction to paper coffee cups (with paper sleeves and plastic tops) has developed and become “normalized.” The goal must be to de-normalize the throwaway mentality. I use each re-usable thermos coffee cup I’ve bought an estimate 2,400 times before I accidentally lose it somewhere — an average of 2 times a day, 300 days a year, for 4 years. I’ve had a total of 4 re-usable coffee thermos type coffee cups over 16 years, so, an average of 4 years per cup. Imagine if I’d thrown away 9,600 single-use coffee cups, sleeves and plastic lids during that time instead! The first R of the 5 “R’s” — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot — is Refuse. Also when you refuse “single-use” products you are modeling positive behavior for others and positive behavior is positively contagious. (p.s. “Rot” is for composting)

  • 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.

    • This is inaccurate: there is nothing eco-friendly about paper cups. We need to radically reduce our overconsumption of all single-use items. Paper coffee cups use virgin paperboard, because of laws about what materials come into contact with people’s lips. Paper coffee cups are lined with polyethylene, which makes them un-recyclable. So they go to landfill and degrade, producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Paper coffee cups cradle to grave generate about .24 lb of CO2, which is totally unsustainable. Worst of all, people use them all the time when they could simply ask for a “for-here” mug or bring their own re-usable mug. I drink coffee every day and go to coffeeshops all the time and I use about one paper coffee cup every ten years. If there’s no “for-here” mug (a re-usable offered by the cafe) and I forgot my own re-usable mug, I don’t drink that coffee. It’s not the recycling industry that’s the problem– it’s that we fail to Refuse and Reduce. Single-use paper coffee cups are not recyclable due to their coating, so stop using them, people! In the U.S. we throw out about 53 billion paper cups per year. The tops are unsustainable as well. We need to honor the earth, not destroy it because of our cravings and our mindless overconsumption of single-use items for our “convenience.”

  • 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!!

    • Right, this is super annoying. What can we do to convince the big bucks Starbucks and the like to stop wasting paper cups even for those people who are doing the right thing in order to stop using paper cups?

  • 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.

    • This comment is insane, on the one hand: the writer has obviously not traveled in Europe, in Germany for example where you’d never see throwaway coffee cups and everyone reuses and recycles — nor in third world countries where people reuse everything due to poverty; single-use disposables are inherently wasteful and not normal (our species hasn’t needed these items for millennia, but now they’re considered essential to survival? baloney.) However, jobs are important. The trick is to shift into a Sustainable economy, where LEED-certified building, sustainable agriculture practices, and renewable energy all create vastly more jobs than cheap energy-inefficient construction, “Big Ag” with its poisons and monocrops, and fossil fuel industry. In other words, business as usual is working to cut jobs whereas the Sustainable Economy would add jobs. What’s required is the values shift needed to build safe jobs, meaningful jobs, secure jobs instead of insane overconsumption overproduction jobs which destroy the environment every day. We need unions, and we need unions to fight for the shift to a sustainable economy.

  • Thanks, and we’re glad to hear you’re blogging on such ever-important topics!

  • Yup. The denial is quite scary. The average U.S. office worker throws away about 500 paper cups per year, one study estimates– just to give one example. People deflect, change the subject, if you ask them to think about changing their habits– but nonetheless they are more likely to change if you ask them than if you stay silent! Let’s keep supporting positive change with greater persistence than ever, to protect our climate, protect our water, and protect our children’s future. I recommend speaking to the manager/owner at every cafe or restaurant using single-use plastic straws, single-use plastic cups, and single-use coffee cups and then publishing the results so customers can go to the more “green” businesses and stay away from the mindless places until they change their practices in the direction of sustainability. If even 1,000 people talk to 20 businesses each per year, we are contributing to change in 20,000 places. You can also get your town to pass Resolutions and laws like my town, Marbletown, NY, just did in passing a “Plastic Straw Free Resolution”! (July 19th 2016) Question overconsumption– question overproduction– encourage businesses to follow the “triple bottom line” of “people, planet, profit.” Be persistent. Don’t give up. Thanks for this post and for all your positive work!