Have you ever felt guilty about using disposable coffee cups?
Well, you wouldn’t be alone, and not without good reason either.
After all, our morning cup of joe is supposed to help us take on the day – not destroy the planet.
And yet, consumers go through an estimated 600 billion paper and plastic cups per year worldwide, according to USA Today.
While some of these cups may be recycled, most are not.
The better approach may well be to drink only from environmentally friendly coffee cups and support those manufacturers who produce them and coffee shops that serve them.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the big problems disposable hot cups cause and which sustainable alternatives you can choose instead.
Cups & Straws Cause Massive Environmental Pollution
Straw use may well be another story (find eco-friendly alternatives here), but it’s part of the same issue caused by our disposable habits.
Maintaining our current disposable coffee cup status quo isn’t a sustainable solution when taking figures into account.
Disposable Plastic Cups Cannot Be Recycled
Like straws, millions of non-biodegradable cups wind up in landfills, waterways, and the ocean.
A person who buys a single cup of coffee each day of the week will generate 23 pounds of waste per year.
While supporters of recycling try to convince coffee drinkers to recycle those disposable cups, others say recycling the current batch of products – with their polyurethane (a type of plastic) coatings and plastic lids – is complex.
Although many people accept the idea that plastic foam cups are especially bad for the environment due to their extremely slow decomposition process, they may wrongly assume that paper cups are a good alternative.
Paper Coffee Cups Are Not Eco-Friendly
Although paper is biodegradable and even compostable, paper cups aren’t great for the planet in their current form.
That’s because many of today’s disposable paper cups have plastic coatings to make them leak-proof, which negate our ability to recycle them (because that plastic lining cannot be separated from the paper).
Furthermore, today’s paper cups are often mixed with chemicals that can potentially harm the environment.
Some experts even suggest that the paper cups’ coatings may even pose a risk to human health.
Moreover, according to a study by Starbucks, each paper cup manufactured is responsible for 0.24 pounds of CO2 emissions.
Even worse, no recycled paper can be used for paper cups, which effectively means that new trees have to be chopped down for their production.
That’s because a lot of recycled paper contains inks and other residues which are not allowed to come in contact with food.
Making paper cups is a messy business that doesn’t just generate greenhouse gas; it uses quite a bit of water too.
That same individual who purchases a disposable cup of coffee each day will require the use of 28 gallons of water per year to make those cups.
In the following short video, UK’s Independent explains the issue (which is obviously not limited to the UK but a worldwide problem):
The greenhouse gases, the water, the litter – it all adds up to the complex pollution problem that recycling alone can’t fix since many types of plastic lids, foam cups, and coated paper cannot be recycled.
Disposable Coffee Cups Pollute The Environment
You might not think that your single-use coffee cup amounts to a hill of (coffee) beans in terms of world pollution.
But this attitude, expressed by the many, has resulted in a disastrously littered planet.
Each year, the ocean is the recipient of about 19 billion pounds of garbage – much of which is plastic.
Ominous news headlines like this: “Pregnant whale washed up in Italian tourist spot had 22 kilograms of plastic in its stomach” are not isolated affairs.
Plastic products pollute and do harm to the planet and the life it contains.
Consequences of Pollution – Shocking Facts
In the US alone, nearly 50% of lakes are “too risky” for activities like fishing and swimming owing to their pollution levels.
The United States is also second only to China when it comes to carbon dioxide pollution. This CO2 emission is affecting the PH level of the ocean and causing it to acidify at an alarming rate.
And, yes, making plastic products like disposable cups contributes to this CO2 problem.
In a single year, the paper industry releases about 174,000 tons of emissions into the atmosphere.
Paper products with plastic coatings, including those cups that harbor our favorite brew, contribute to the 26% of solid waste that accumulates in landfills today.
As an aside, however, Scientific American has reported that biodegradable cups that use plant-based coatings is “another way to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases in a quickly warming world.”
This is because compostable cups are mostly made from plant-based materials, which are CO2 neutral (find out why in this article).
Reusable Cups vs Compostable Cups
Ok, disposable cups are crap. So now what?
Are compostable or reusable cups the more sustainable alternative?
Of course, the most eco-friendly (and probably healthiest) option would be for everyone to drink their coffee at home from a ceramic mug (and if you’re in a hurry, use eco-friendly coffee pods).
The reality, however, is that a large percentage of all coffee drinkers get their favorite brew outside their homes.
Coffee lovers may have noted that their favorite coffee shops are offering discounts for customers who present reusable cups for fill-ups. On the face of things, this seems like a reasonable solution.
And when the choice is between using a reusable cup or those standard disposable, non-compostable cups, a reusable cup is clearly the preferable and more sustainable option.
Reusable Cups More Eco-Friendly Only If Used Long-Term
However, when comparing reusable with compostable cups, the winner is not so obvious.
In fact, the Institute for Lifecycle Energy Analysis reports that it takes fewer resources and less energy to create biodegradable cups than to make and use reusable cups.
Considering the energy it takes to produce reusable cups – and to continue to use them (assuming regular washings), it takes quite a few uses to reach the break-even point at which the reusable cup becomes more energy-efficient than the disposable cup.
Melanie Speck from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate in Germany comes to a similar conclusion.
She reports that a reusable cup becomes worthwhile from an ecological point of view after 2 months – assuming daily use.
So if you intend to use your own cup fairly long-term, go for it!
That’s commendable and the most environmentally friendly option. In this case, you may want to opt for a high-quality cup to ensure durability.
Otherwise, compostable cups are most likely the better choice.
Proper Disposal Is Crucial For Environmental Friendliness
Having said all that, what you do with your compostable cup after you’ve finished your coffee makes all the difference (and makes or breaks the eco-friendliness).
Because many people are not aware of the fact that compostable products need very specific conditions to decompose, they throw them into their recycling bin or trash can (you won’t do that, of course, because you’ve read our article on compostable products).
As a result of this, instead of being turned into valuable soil in a composting facility, that compostable cup ends up in a landfill or incineration plant.
And as we’ve seen in this article, landfills are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s more, if you mix biodegradable or compostable products with recyclable trash, you contaminate the whole batch, which means none of it can be recycled.
So what happens to it? You guessed right, another load of waste headed for the landfill.
The upshot: compostable cups are only truly beneficial if disposed of correctly so that they can be composted.
4 Recommended Compostable Cups
There are some outstanding compostable coffee cups on the market today – and with big-chain coffee shops putting increasing pressure on developers and manufacturers to step up their biodegradable game, consumers can expect more good options in the future.
For now, consider these products as sustainable alternatives:
1. Planet+ Compostable Hot Cups
Made by Stalkmarket, their brand “Planet +” offers cups that are 100% compostable and are coated with a corn-based resin lining – not a petroleum-based coating.
These cups are non-toxic, durable, leak proof and can be refrigerated. Use them for espresso, coffee, tea, or other hot beverages. They are available in a wide variety of sizes, ranging from 4 to 20 ounces.
Make sure to get their matching compostable lids, in case you need any.
2. Eco Products World Art Hot Cups
Manufactured by Eco Products, World Art Hot Cups are another eco-friendly disposable cup option.
Available in sizes ranging from 2 to 20 ounces, these cups are designed from 100% renewable resources and meet ASTM standards for compostability.
3. World Centric FSC Paper Hot Cups
World Centric Paper Hot Cups are made from 100% FSC paper, which means from certified sustainably managed forests.
Like the other cups listed here, they are coated with a PLA (plant-based) sealer that is completely compostable.
These cups are available in sizes ranging from 4 to 20 ounces.
4. Ecotainer Carte Blanc Compostable Hot Cups
Ecotainer’s disposable hot cups are 100% compostable. They are produced from sustainably sourced paper and feature a moisture-resistant plant-based Polylactic Acid (PLA) coating designed to prevent leaks.
They are free from chlorine and petrochemicals that can be harmful to health and the environment.
Ecotainer also produces eco-friendly biodegradable cup lids too.
Conventional disposable coffee cups are a huge burden on our environment and a health hazard. Reusable cups or compostable disposable cups are potential alternatives.
There are smart, eco-friendly disposable cup options available today.
With some pricing as low as 7 cents per cup, many great options are affordable too. You can purchase disposable cup supplies in bulk for even more substantial cost savings.
While chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, and Starbucks are moving toward sustainable solutions, your favorite local chain may not be ready to ditch its non-recyclable, non-compostable single-use cups.
In these cases, you may wish to opt for your reusable cup (in order to avoid their foam or coated paper options) and tell them about the great compostable cup options on the market today.
If everyone does their part to promote solutions that are healthful for the planet, we can all enjoy our favorite cuppa without the guilty aftertaste.