Understanding the rise of recyclable coffee cups

Janice Kanniah
December 1, 2021
recyclable coffee cups

Since the 1960s, takeaway cups have been an important part of the coffee industry. For consumers, they allow them to enjoy coffee on the go, while for coffee shops they have opened up new revenue streams and helped support their core business.

Originally made from paper, manufacturers switched to polystyrene thanks to its lower cost and wide availability. In many parts of the world, polystyrene is still the standard material used.

However, as consumers become increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of plastic, the situation is changing once again. This, combined with a greater focus on hygiene as a result of Covid-19, recyclable paper cups have steadily become the more popular choice.

Here’s what you need to know when choosing recyclable takeaway cups for your business.

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recyclable coffee cups
Takeaway cups allow consumers to continue enjoying specialty coffee on the go

Why offer takeaway coffee cups?

Since their introduction, takeaway coffee cups have been a boon for café owners. They allow them to offer both in-store and to-go options at the same time, while giving consumers access to specialty coffees on the go.

More recently, many café owners have encouraged customers to bring their own reusable cups for filling. This is to encourage repeat purchases and reduce the environmental impact of serving takeaway coffee.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic put an abrupt stop to this trend. Research shows that only deep cleaning with a detergent can remove the virus from a surface. As a result, many cafés have temporarily prohibited the use of reusable cups, deeming them too resource-intensive to clean before filling.

Although widespread vaccinations have started pushing back the spread of the virus, many people remain unvaccinated, and concerns over catching the virus are still running high. This means that customers may continue to prefer takeaway cups until they feel Covid-19 is no longer an active threat.

recyclable coffee cups
Coffee shops and roasters have a wide range of choice when it comes to coffee cups

What takeaway cup options are currently available?

The global disposable cup market is a lucrative one and is expected to exceed US $20 billion by 2028. Most paper cups are paper-based and are most commonly lined with polyethylene plastic to prevent leaks. This type of cup is the most cost effective option on the market and can be made of recycled paper.

Before this, styrofoam cups were the preferred option. Not only were they cost effective for businesses, they offered good protection against hot liquids.

However, styrofoam has been largely abandoned as it can’t be recycled and can take up to 500 years to break down. Sales of the material are steadily declining and many governments have placed outright bans on styrofoam packaging altogether.

Paper cups, meanwhile, are typically made from pulped wood chips that have been bleached and processed into paper. This paper has a thin plastic lining added to it, and the plastic is heated so that it adheres to the cup. The cup is then branded with printing.

This process creates a cup that can display a café’s branding and hold hot or cold drinks without immediately disintegrating

The plastic coating on a typical cup makes up less than 5% of it, but sadly that’s enough to keep it from being recycled. These cups must have their ink and plastic lining removed before recycling, and few facilities are equipped to do this.

Ultimately, this means that most takeaway paper coffee cups end up in landfills, cancelling out any environmental benefit that they have being made from a renewable material like paper.

takeaway cups to go
PLA lined kraft paper coffee cups are among the most eco-friendly options

How to choose a better takeaway cup for your café

Takeaway cups aren’t likely to fall out of favour anytime soon.

However, despite their popularity, plastic lined paper cups might soon become as obsolete as styrofoam cups. Therefore, continuing to offer them to customers is bad for the environment and bad for business. 

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to offer plastic lined cups as recyclable, particularly in areas where recycling facilities can’t process them. New Zealand’s Commerce Commission recently issued a warning to one such manufacturer in the country for making false and illegal claims.

Instead, if you’re offering customers takeaway cups, you should consider options that are recyclable or compostable. One option is choosing polylactic acid (PLA) lined cups. PLA is extracted from renewable resources like corn starch, and when used to coat a paper cup, it’s strong and waterproof.

PLA is a biodegradable bioplastic that can naturally degrade in the environment without releasing harmful toxins. In most cases it can even be placed in a composting bin, provided the paper hasn’t been treated or printed on using harmful chemicals and inks.

While this option certainly has many benefits, it’s also important to determine whether your café and customers actually have access to composting facilities. If industrial composting facilities aren’t available, your cups might not end up being composted at all, and could end up in a landfill. 

In this case, you can choose to keep specific collection bins in your café or encourage customers to collect and return used cups for a discount on an upcoming drink. Incentives usually work well when starting an initiative like this.

best disposable packaging
It’s important to consider your customers as well as your local facilities before deciding on what to buy

Offering your customers a takeaway cup that successfully contains any hot or cold beverage and is good for the planet is possible. MTPak Coffee can offer you a range of sustainably produced takeaway cups and help you brand them appropriately.

More importantly, we can help you brand your cups with details of your business, also allowing you to communicate the cup’s recycling qualities to customers. This can demonstrate the advantages of your compostable cups to a wider audience and encourage people to patronise your business.

For information on our recyclable takeaway cups, contact our team.

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