The evolution of takeaway coffee cups

Aidan Gant
April 8, 2022
takeaway coffee cups

Throughout the 21st century, coffee “on the go” has become synonymous with a busy lifestyle. And, as societal needs for mobile coffee have evolved, so have the cups in which it is served.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a dramatic effect on coffee buying and consumption trends. Millions of people were asked to stay home, forcing up to 70% of UK coffee shops to exclusively offer takeaway options.

As the world moves into a “new normal”, it appears takeaway coffees are here to stay. A 2021 study by the National Coffee Association reveals drive-thru and app-ordered takeaway coffee orders were up by 30%, despite overall sales being down by a third.

Consequently, the need for suitable cups is evident. As disposable cup materials become increasingly sustainable, the choices for coffee shop owners and roasters are endless.

Read on to find out how takeaway coffee cups have evolved over time.

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polystyrene coffee cup

The early 20th century: The dawn of disposable cups

Before disposable cups were invented, tin cups – also known as dippers – were shared at communal water wells.

In 1908, Lawrence Luellen developed the earliest example of disposable drinking cups: a cone shaped vessel called the Health Kup.

These were made from two pieces of paper fused together using wax, which stopped the water from disintegrating the paper cone.

Later renamed Dixie Cups, these disposable cups rapidly grew in popularity, particularly during the flu epidemic that lasted from 1918 to 1920.

The early sixties: Polystyrene cups & takeaway coffee cup culture

An increase in demand for takeaway coffee cups that could contain hot beverages came with a variety of solutions.

Early attempts included paper cups with attachable fold-out handles, such as those patented by inventor Sydney Koons in 1933.

By the fifties, technological advances resulted in materials that could make sturdier cups. The Dart Container Corporation had experimented with expanded polystyrene and, by 1957, they had developed a machine that could manufacture foam cups.

These polystyrene cups performed better than their paper predecessors, providing better insulation and a more rigid structure. As a result, they dominated the market for the next two decades.

However, businesses and customers soon realised the detrimental environmental impact of polystyrene.

Polystyrene is not biodegradable, nor is it easily recycled, making it one of the most littered waste products. Additionally, it can release harmful chemicals into the environment, and take over 500 years to break down.

As environmentalism came into focus throughout the sixties, the popularity of polystyrene began to fade.

starbucks takeaway cups

The end of the century: Starbucks and the return to paper cups

The final blow to polystyrene cups came in 1987, when Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, elected to use paper takeaway cups in all the coffee chain’s stores.

By then, the latest designs of paper cups had plastic linings to help prevent seepage. However, customers were still struggling to hold hot cups, so they often “double-cupped”.

Double cupping came at both an environmental and financial cost to Starbucks, who found it was spending twice as much on cups.

As a result, a pivotal moment in coffee cup design came in 1991, when the first cardboard sleeve was invented. Created to protect hands from hot cups, the “Java Jacket” remains immensely popular today.

While Java Jackets were being produced, paper cup manufacturers were developing double and triple walled cups to improve insulation – another innovation that remains ubiquitous.

As takeaway coffee cups moved towards more modern designs, the focus shifted to sustainability. As a result, reusable to-go cups made from glass, also known as Keep Cups, were introduced in 2007.

sustainable takeaway cups

Sustainability and modern takeaway coffee cups

Even with the reusable cup movement, modern interpretations of disposable cups have continued to thrive. This is because many businesses are favouring more environmentally friendly options, such as compostable coffee cups.

As many takeaway coffee purchases are often impulsive, the likelihood of a customer having a reusable cup on them is slim. In fact, less than 5% of takeaway coffees sold are estimated to be in reusable cups.

In order to make a reusable cup environmentally preferable to single-use cups, they must be used between 100 and 250 times, which they rarely are.

Furthermore, the resources it takes to make them and repeatedly wash them means they may not be the greener option.

Cory Bernat, food historian and co-curator of the Smithsonian Museum’s exhibit of coffee cup lids believes takeaway coffee cups are here to stay.

“Food culture is all about habit, and businesses have a lot more influence over our behaviour than we like to admit,” she said in an article for Bon Appétit.

It seems the convenience of disposability is a gift many people are unwilling to surrender. 

“Companies are quick to reassure people that it’s OK to ask for convenience, and people are ‌even quicker in accepting that offer,” Bernat explains.

In particular, people have opted for disposable takeaway coffee cups since the outbreak of Covid-19 due to hygiene concerns. Echoing the flu epidemic of the early 20th century, the return to disposable cups amid concerns of hygiene and germ transfer has an interesting historical symmetry.

recyclable kraft paper coffee cups

Over the last century, takeaway cups have evolved from a hygienic necessity to an everyday object of convenience. And during this time the need for sustainable takeaway coffee cups has become clear.

More importantly, however, is their disposal. Traditional paper and plastic-lined cups must be separated and treated in a specialist facility before they can be recycled.

This has led to recent development of more recyclable and compostable cup options, seen by many roasters as more viable options.

At MTPak Coffee, we support the sustainable aspirations of your business. Therefore, we offer a range of compostable takeaway coffee cups that are made from recycled kraft paper and lined with polylactic acid (PLA), a fully compostable bioplastic made from plant-based starches. 

Our range includes double or single wall cups, as well as coffee cup sleeves. All of this can be fully customised using our sustainable water-based inks that are highly resistant to abrasion, heat, and water. 

For more information on our compostable takeaway coffee cups, contact the team.

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