Are custom compostable cups environmentally friendly?

Amelia Cooper
January 13, 2023
An image of a woman carrying four custom printed compostable takeaway coffee cups in an article on whether customising compostable coffee cups affect their environmentally friendly status

For businesses across the coffee industry, sustainability is at the top of the agenda.

Along every step from bean supply to cafés, professionals are working to ensure the sustainability of their operations. Doing so is proving increasingly critical, both for retaining customers and future-proofing the industry.

As a result, compostable takeaway coffee cups are currently one of the largest investments being made by specialty coffee outlets. Compostable cups are able to break down completely without leaching toxic residue into the surrounding environment.

Additionally, a growing number of brands are realising the benefits of customising their takeaway cups with branding and other design techniques. However, many have begun to wonder if customisation can compromise the compostability of takeaway coffee cups.

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How long do compostable takeaway cups take to break down?

Compostable takeaway cups are made using plant-based materials.

Typically, these comprise paper, cardboard, or specialist plant-based plastics, with polylactic acid (PLA) being one of the most common.

Another widely used solution is a cup made from kraft paper with an environmentally friendly PLA coating. This inner coating helps provide the cup with more durability and helps it better retain its structural stability in moist environments, or when filled with coffee.

Either way, the materials are designed to break down entirely and leave behind only organic matter. Compostable cups biodegrade into a combination of unreactive natural matter, such as carbon dioxide, water, and substances that help to enrich the soil.

However, it is important to note compostable cups are specifically designed to biodegrade in a composting environment.

To successfully decompose, compostable takeaway coffee cups need to be in an environment where they are exposed to the right levels of heat, moisture and microorganisms.

This means if a customer mistakenly places them in a regular waste bin and the cups end up in a landfill, it is likely they will take over a century to decompose.

What’s more, if they are discarded in a recycling bin designated for plastics, they will actually contaminate the entire recycling process.

An image of a compostable takeaway coffee cup in an article on whether custom printing reduces a compostable coffee cups compostability.

Therefore, despite the fact compostable coffee cups contain natural materials, it is still critical they are disposed of correctly.

Allowing compostable takeaway cups to break down requires a composting environment. These are available to both individual consumers and businesses in a variety of different forms.

Furthermore, the composting environment chosen will directly impact the speed at which the cup breaks down.

For instance, cafes and roasters may send used coffee cups to a commercial composting facility. The cups are placed in specialist conditions, which are precisely optimised to increase the speed of biodegrading. Here, PLA cups can break down in less than two months.

Alternatively, roasters and café owners may use a personal compost bin. While compostable cups are able to break down in this environment, they will take significantly longer.

On average, a PLA cup may take around a year to fully decompose in household compost. Therefore, the ideal solution is to send used compostable coffee cups to a commercial composting facility.

For many businesses, switching to compostable alternatives is one of the fastest and most affordable ways to reduce their environmental impact.

That said, what is less known about compostable cups is the question of custom printing. The negative impact of the inks used may outweigh the positive effect of these cups.

So, the big question is, are custom-printed compostable takeaway coffee cups still environmentally friendly?

How could customising compostable cups affect their compostability?

Traditional inks and printing methods would often contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Conventionally, these chemicals have been used to make the ink or toner more fluid, making it less likely to clog printing equipment and easier to apply to packaging.

VOCs evaporate quickly at room temperature, meaning the chemicals are released into the air when the ink or toner is applied. As a result, they represent a significant contribution to a roasters’ net air pollution, especially if they print a lot of packaging.

 This is made worse by the fact that VOCs can be harmful to health, and have been linked to a number of health problems.

 For these reasons, in recent years, there has been a major drive towards alternative inks and printing methods that contain fewer, if any, VOCs.

 A number of sustainable inks are available, which have been developed to have a minimal impact on the environment and human health. These include:

●       Vegetable-based inks made from plant-based materials, such as soy or linseed oil.

●       Water-based inks made from blending water and pigments.

●       Bio-based inks made from renewable natural materials, such as corn or sugarcane.

●       Low-VOC inks which closely resemble conventional inks, but contain a lower level of VOCs.

An image of custom printed compostable coffee cups, compostable takeaway coffee cup in an article on whether custom printing reduces a compostable coffee cups compostability.

Do other design techniques compromise a compostable coffee cup?

A wide variety of design techniques are available, allowing marketers and illustrators to bring their visions to life.

That said, the design technique chosen may impact the sustainability and compostability of takeaway cups.

Within the specialty coffee industry, there are four common design techniques, and each affects the compostability of a cup differently.

Hot stamping

Hot stamping is a printing process that involves transferring a metallic or pigment foil onto the packaging material by applying heat and pressure.

Hot stamping can be used to add extra decorative touches to coffee packaging or shift the consumer’s focus to the logo.

Generally, hot stamping has little to no effect on the chemical composition of the material and should not affect the compostability of the coffee cups.


During embossing, the design is raised above the surface of the takeaway cup to add a three-dimensional effect to the design.

This is done by pressing an embossing die on the packaging. Since embossing requires no addition or reduction of materials, it will not affect the cup’s compostability. 


As the reverse of embossing, debossing involves pressing a design into the packaging.

This creates an indentation, giving the packaging an interesting textural element. And, as with embossing, debossing will not affect the compostability of the cup.

Spot UV finishes

This technique adds a gloss finish to the packaging design, but only in specific areas.

This is achieved by printing a clear, UV-cured ink onto the required areas, then curing with a UV light.

Previous UV coatings were harmful to the environment, as they contained carcinogens and were unable to decompose in landfills.

However, sustainable printing developments mean UV coatings can be done using non-carcinogenic inks, which can be included in the ‘mixed waste’ recycling category.

Switching to compostable takeaway coffee cups is a quick step in the right direction. However, the overall sustainability of compostable cups depends on a wide variety of factors, including the way that they are disposed of, and the printing processes used in their design.

At MTPak Coffee, our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable materials such as PET and kraft paper, with an environmentally friendly PLA lining. 

Our cups are available in three sizes: 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 24oz. In addition to being strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable, our cups can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to customise your cups to your specifications. 

We also offer a range of low minimum order quantity (MOQ) options. This means you can order as few as 500 fully customised units in just five working days.

For more information on custom-printed compostable coffee cups and packaging, contact our team.

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