Do all takeaway coffee cups require lids?

Aidan Gant
February 17, 2023
An image of a barista handing a customer a takeaway coffee cup with a lid, a kraft paper takeaway coffee cup in an article on whether all takeaway coffee cups need lids.

As coffee culture has evolved, requirements and expectations for takeaway coffee cups and lids have changed.

While they may seem like mundane, seemingly useless objects, takeaway cup lids have transformed the way millions of people consume coffee. 

Usually, cup lids are used to prevent spills while consumers are on the move. Over time, they have evolved to provide comfort, ease of use, and other functionalities, such as retaining heat and aroma.

Notably, some takeaway coffee cup lids have been specifically designed to enhance the consumer’s coffee experience.

However, in light of the growing plastic waste crisis, what do disposable cup lids actually do, and do cafes need to offer them? Do their benefits outweigh the environmental implications of their production cost?

Read on to discover whether all takeaway coffee cups require lids and whether your business needs to offer them with every order. 

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A brief history of takeaway cup lids

The takeaway cup itself has undergone a string of changes since its first appearance in 1908.

One of the first, and most recognisable forms came in Lawrence Luellen’s Health Kup, also known as a Dixie Cup.

Dixie Cups were marketed as a way to prevent the transfer of communicable diseases surrounding the shared use of tin dipper cups at water fountains.

As the design of takeaway cups has evolved, so too has the need for, shape, and style of cup lids. 

The first cup lid designed with hot beverages in mind was Delbert E. Phiney’s “Thermal Coffee Cup”, which was patented in 1953.

Based on principles developed by Roy Irvin Stubblefield in the early 1930s, Phiney designed a sipping cup for infants, those with disabilities, and those in recovery from injury and illness.

Notably, Phiney’s thermal coffee cup also featured insulative elements, foreshadowing the later development of the “Java Jacket” or coffee cup sleeve.

Cup sleeves help prevent heat transfer through the cup wall, reducing the risk of burns and scalds.

Phiney’s cup design was the first to “provide a cover cap for a paper coffee cup wherein a portion of the cap can be torn away to permit the drinking of the coffee or other hot liquids”. 

This revolutionised disposable coffee cup lids for the future and the tearaway lid became the new norm. 

The evolution of coffee cup lids has been very much driven by a particular brand of DIY consumer innovation. This is according to Louise Harpman and Scott Specht, owners of the world’s largest collection of coffee cup lids and authors of the book Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture,

For instance, consumers who wanted an on-the-go solution actually developed the first sip-through style of takeaway coffee cup lid in the 1940s. 

This refers to a lid through which consumers can drink without the requirement for its removal. Coffee drinkers would simply tear a small triangular piece of the drink lid away and sip through the hole.

As a result, several patents and new designs of lids followed in the subsequent decades.

Another instance where design and manufacture have followed a consumer-driven revelation of new technologies is in the infamous Liebeck vs McDonald’s scalding lawsuit.

79-year-old Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns as the result of improperly fitted takeaway coffee cup lids. 

As a result, she was initially awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. However, reports indicate she settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

As serving temperatures were defended by bodies such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the focus for reform shifted to packaging.

This came in the form of more robust packaging solutions and warnings of hot contents printed on disposable coffee cup lids.

The designs of coffee cup lids are always evolving. That said, modern designs share key components that service three major benefits. 

Perhaps the most iconic coffee lid in circulation today is the Solo Traveler lid developed by the Solo Cup Company in 1986.

Its inclusion of a recess above the spout to accommodate the upper lid, allowing for a more comfortable drinking experience, has become the norm across most of its contemporary designs.

An image of a takeaway coffee cup lid made from recyclable materials, a recyclable coffee cup lid with a custom-printed warning in an article on whether all takeaway coffee cups need lids.

What are the benefits of takeaway coffee cup lids?

The humble coffee lid is only truly humble at a cursory glance.  

On closer inspection, the sheer amount of engineered design, and the involved science behind it, is actually quite startling. 

More so, there can be several benefits to offering lids with every takeaway coffee. 

First, cup lids help keep scalding hot liquids out of consumers’ laps, and this will always be the priority.

Second, the aromatics released by freshly brewed coffee are among the most volatile organic compounds inherent in the process.

The way in which scent impacts a consumer’s interpretation of a coffee’s taste is one of the key factors in their enjoyment of the beverage.

Lids on takeaway coffee cups can prevent these volatile aromatics from dissipating into the atmosphere before customers can get their nostrils around them. 

Alternatively, they can lock the aromas away while drinking. Modern innovations in lid design allow for chambers in the headspace above the hot liquid to direct fragrant compounds to consumers’ olfactory centres. 

Third, a lid on a takeaway coffee cup can be an effective method for heat retention for those who drink their coffee slowly.

An image of a kraft paper takeaway coffee cup with a corrugated kraft paper ripple coffee sleeve without a lid on a wooden table with sunglasses on the left in an article on whether all takeaway coffee cups need lids.

Do all takeaway coffee cups require lids?

An important consideration for your business may be whether each takeaway drink actually needs a lid.

To an extent, this should depend on consumer preferences. Therefore, it may be helpful for your baristas to ask customers whether they would like a lid, rather than providing one as a standard.

For example, many espresso drinkers are likely to let their shot cool to a suitable temperature before drinking it in a necessarily short time frame due to its low volume. 

Therefore, it would be fair to expect that most small-volume drinks may not need a lid.

Notably, some coffee shops are hoping to do away with lids altogether. With environmental concerns considered, this may be the future.

For example, some have stopped providing single-use items such as serviettes, straws, and cup lids, as a standard, making customers ask for them instead. 

Interestingly, a study conducted at Cornell University found offering these items as a default option may increase usage and waste. Alternatively, asking consumers if they need a lid for their coffee cup may lead to less wasteful consumption. 

Startup company Unocup launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for their innovative product, which hopes to eliminate the need for a separate lid.

It hopes to do this by allowing the sides of the drinking vessel to be folded in at the top to seal the unit in much the same way as a noodle box might.

Until products such as these become more accessible, it is advisable for baristas to ask consumers if they require lids. This can help prevent unnecessary waste and promote sustainable purchasing habits.

MTPak Coffee offers roasters and coffee shops a range of SensoryLids, which are specifically designed so customers can enjoy the full aroma of your takeaway coffee without spillages. 

Our SensoryLid was designed with the help of cupping experts and barista champions and allows consumers to continue receiving the coffee’s aroma thanks to an innovative sensory hole.

Additionally, our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable materials such as bamboo fibre, PET, or kraft paper with an environmentally friendly PLA lining and are available in different sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz, 12 oz, and 24 oz.

Our takeaway coffee cups are strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable, and can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature your brand logo or recycling instructions.

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 sustainable takeaway coffee cup options, contact our team today.

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