The problem with edible coffee cups

Aidan Gant
June 17, 2022
The problem with edible cups

In a bid to reduce plastic waste, many businesses are looking to replace traditional plastic polymers in packaging with eco-friendly alternatives. 

The most common contributors to plastic waste in the coffee industry are single-use takeaway cups. Half a trillion disposable cups are manufactured annually: the equivalent of 70 cups for every person on the planet. 

Reusable coffee cups made from glass, and advancements in the development of compostable and biodegradable cups have helped reduce the amount of waste. However, customers often forget to carry reusable cups, while compostable and biodegradable cups require specialised facilities in order to break down quickly. 

As a result, one of the most interesting solutions proposed in recent years is to replace disposable packaging with edible alternatives, such as edible coffee cups.

While the idea of edible coffee cups stems from classics such as the ice cream cone, some companies have taken a more futuristic approach. This includes spherified alginate liquid comestibles such as those offered by hi-tech startup Ooho Water.

Read on to find out more about edible coffee cups and whether they are a practical option for coffee shops and baristas.

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Caucasian female hand in background with brown kraft paper coffee pouch, cup of roasted beans, and cookies on a plate in foreground

What is “edible packaging”?

Edible packaging refers to packaging that is designed to be eaten or has the ability to biodegrade efficiently, like the food it contains.

This type of packaging can be made from a variety of different materials and depends on what is being packaged. 

Traditional examples include sausage casings, banana leaf plates, and nature’s favourites, such as orange and banana peels. 

More innovative ideas range from drinking straws made from agar seaweed, and food bubbles called WikiPearls. These are bite-sized morsels of food surrounded by edible membranes.

In 2019, runners in the London Marathon were handed small orbs of Lucozade Sport drinks that were encased in edible seaweed capsules. These were provided by sustainable packaging startup Skipping Rocks Lab, which was founded by Imperial College London graduates. 

Considering that in 2018, marathon participants left 919,676 plastic bottles strewn along the course, the adoption of edible water pouches is a far more sustainable option for the annual event. 

An interesting case study in edible packaging is the company Loliware. In 2015, business owners Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker secured a $600 thousand investment and a valuation of $2.4 million for their edible cup company, thanks to the American tv show Shark Tank. 

Their edible cup was not a popular product among customers, and so, in 2017, they shifted their business away from consumables to fully compostable bioplastics. Loliware recently launched their Blue Carbon straw, which is 100% biodegradable, but is not yet edible.

Image of edible cup made from cereal, with clear instructions on how to eat it after consuming the coffee inside.

How have edible coffee cups been used?

Many of the edible coffee cups available today fall into one of two categories. 

Despite being scarce outside of one-off marketing promotions, the most common edible option is the biscotti cup. Made using a dense shortbread, these cookie cups are lined with chocolate to provide a barrier for the coffee. 

The other style of edible cup is essentially the same as a chocolate-lined waffle cone. Folded like an ice cream cone, these edible cups are also lined with chocolate and are usually used to serve cappuccino or espresso. 

In 2015, UK branches of the fast-food chain KFC ran a promotion stunt to celebrate their collaboration with coffee company, Seattle’s Best. The promotion featured edible wafer and white chocolate coffee cups enveloped in sugar paper sleeves branded with the Colonel’s logo. 

Additionally, in 2018, Etihad Airlines served in-flight beverages in Cupffee cookie-based cups. This was the world’s first plastic-free long haul flight between Abu Dhabi and Australia, and aimed to promote World Earth Day. 

Notably, in situations such as air travel, oceanic cruises, and outdoor recreation events may be effective, high-value markets for edible packaging. In the case of air travel and cruises, increased ticket prices can help absorb the extra cost of edible packaging. 

Furthermore, packaging companies may find that consumers are prepared to pay more for environmental benefits. Recent studies show more than a third of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainability.

Caucasian hand holding two brown recyclable takeaway coffee cups with black sensory lids.

What are the problems with edible coffee cups?

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, customers and businesses have become increasingly vigilant of situations with the potential for spreading viruses. Additionally, concerns over food packaging and direct handling have increased.

Notably, this has had unfortunate consequences for the edible packaging market. 

That said, prior to the global pandemic, experts were sceptical over the hygiene of edible food packaging. Bruce Welt, a researcher at the University of Florida, believes “we use packaging to protect food. We don’t use food to protect food.” 

A further cause for concern with edible packaging and cups lies in the strength of its barrier properties. For instance, edible films may become gooey or disintegrate completely when introduced to heat and moisture.

More so, cups made from biscuit dough have a porous structure, which may collect dust or go stale if packaged incorrectly. In order to prevent these from breaking during transit, additional protective packaging may be required. 

Factors such as these make long-term storage and transport difficult for most types of edible packaging.

In addition, psychological barriers set within many consumers may cause aversions to eating the packaging their food arrives in. Many people are unfamiliar with the concept of eating a cup after finishing the beverage.

It is clear that sustainable alternatives need to replace packaging materials and single-use plastic takeaway cups. However, with recently developments being made in the designs of recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable cups, coffee roasters and cafe owners have numerous options to choose from. 

For baristas and coffee shop owners, edible takeaway coffee cups may be most effective when used alongside limited promotions. In regards to day-to-day takeaway offerings, other types of sustainable coffee cups may be the better choice.

Image of five brown recyclable takeaway coffee cups with white sensory lids.

At MTPak Coffee, we support the sustainable aspirations of your business. Therefore, we offer baristas and coffee shops 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. We offer a number of sizes, including 8oz, 16oz, and 24oz.

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 sustainable takeaway coffee cups, contact our team

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Aidan Gant
Aidan Gant

Aidan spent his early career working in cafes alongside coffee roasters and in other hospitality positions. He owned a vegan tapas restaurant, specialty coffee bar, and live jazz venue, which he operated with his partner before closing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2020, he has made his living writing about coffee and the environment, and is currently a researcher and doctoral student in Creative Writing.

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