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Why Are Paper Coffee Cups Bad for the Environment?

When it comes to the paper vs plastic debate, many environmentalists would consider paper the clear winner. However, many paper products like cups, bowls, and plates are lined with plastic. This means they’re not eco-friendly at all. This article will explore some of the main problems with paper coffee cups, and also suggest some alternatives.  

How Many Paper Coffee Cups are Produced Every Year?

There’s nothing quite like a hot coffee or tea. However, when our hot beverages come in throw-away coffee cups, our planet suffers the environmental impact.

 Coffee cup being thrown away

Annually, roughly 600 billion paper and plastic cups are used worldwide, according to the International Coffee Organization. In the U.S. it’s estimated that we throw away more than 50 billion paper coffee cups with lids every year. As one of the biggest coffee chains, Starbucks alone is responsible for roughly 7 billion cups a year. 

While paper may seem innocent enough when it enters a landfill, its plastic lining makes a degradable material much more problematic. 

What are Paper Coffee Cups Made Of?

Disposable coffee cups are made with a range of materials. Even if the cups aren’t made with the environmental villain Styrofoam, paper cups are often lined with equally problematic plastics. 

Disposable coffee cups typically have a plastic resin, or polyethylene, lining. Polyethylene is a petroleum-based plastic, requiring thousands of barrels of oil to line our paper cups every single year. 

Beyond the fossil fuel requirements, single-use plastics present another issue: proper disposal. 

Coffee cup litter floating in ocean

Are Paper Coffee Cups Recyclable or Compostable?

Because they are made with paper, you may incorrectly assume you can recycle paper cups. But coffee cups are able to contain hot liquids is because they’re typically made with plastic-lined paper.

In the U.S., and around the world, most recycling programs are NOT capable of processing any plastic-coated cups or containers. Because plastic coatings contaminate the post-consumer paper material, roughly 99.75% of coffee cups can’t be recycled

While the paper on its own can be composted, that plastic lining makes it impossible to do that. If a plastic-lined paper coffee cup is composted, it will contaminate the finished compost with microplastics and potentially toxic chemicals.  There are alternatives in compostable coffee cups that are lined with a biofilm called PLA. (More on that below)

What About the Lids?

Lids are an essential part of single-use cups to prevent spills and burns. But just like the disposable paper cups, they come with their own set of problems. 

Plastic lids are often made with polypropylene, or plastic #5. It’s one of the most common types of plastics because it’s lightweight and durable. Often these are not accepted by most residential recycling services. To sort, clean, and recycle the material requires more resources and has a higher cost than simply creating a new lid. 

Even worse are the polystyrene (#6) coffee lids. We see foam coffee cups less and less, but the hard version of the material is still occasionally used in lids. Polystyrene has angered environmentalists and prompted some city-wide bans because it’s one of the worst contributors to microplastics. The small pieces are found in animal stomachs, table salt, and drinking water. 

Unfortunately, the problems associated with microplastics go beyond those of an environmental nature. 

Health Concerns Associated with Paper Coffee Cups

Even if you’re sipping on a sugar-laden coffee drink, the high calories aren’t the only health concern. Those microplastics released from polystyrene? They’re associated with all types of plastic linings used in coffee cups. 

Coffee in cups

A study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found that plastic films (polypropylene included) release microplastics. These are considered hazardous and present health consequences. Within just 15 minutes, the plastic lining begins to degrade. Just three hot beverages a day could mean that someone ingests a whopping 75,000 microplastic particles

While we don’t know the full impact these particles could have on our health, they have been linked with health issues. These include reproductive harm, metabolic disturbances, and an increased risk of cancer. 

Alternatives to Traditional Paper Cups

Many people buying coffee cups now are looking for alternatives to paper coffee cups with petroleum-based plastic lining.

Fortunately, eco-friendly alternatives exist that are certified compostable by BPI. Both cup options below are also available as custom coffee cups as well! 

  • Paper hot cups with PLA lining take biodegradable paper coffee cups to the next level. These are made with PLA lining, a corn-based bioplastic that can withstand the heat of a hot drink. They are also made from FSC Certified paper. 
  • NoTree sugarcane hot cups are also lined with PLA. They are made with zero tree paper but rather a rapidly renewable and unbleached sugarcane fiber.  Also available in bowls and cold cups.
  • cPLA and fiber lids are made from renewable plant-based materials. They are also spill-proof, easily withstand heat, and are certified compostable. 

Compostable coffee cups

Ultimately, we can still enjoy drinking coffee or tea daily. But for the health the planet and ourselves, we should reconsider the materials in the hot cups we use. Traditional paper coffee cups are bad for the environment. When we consider that each sip might include microplastics, they’re also bad for our health. 

Renewable, plant-based linings and lids are a modern improvement to coffee cups. This evolution is something that every coffee shop, cafe owner, and coffee connoisseur should embrace. 


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