What are the most eco-friendly coffee cups?

Holly Szakal
December 29, 2023
eco-friendly coffee cups, sustainable coffee cups, takeaway coffee cups, double wall coffee cups, custom takeaway coffee cups, custom coffee cups, custom printed cofee cups, Epoch Chemistry Coffee House

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. 

Traditionally, to go cups were made from paper before production companies realised the potential of polystyrene. These 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. The material is not biodegradable, nor is it easily recycled, making it one of the most littered waste products. As consumer expectations for sustainability continue to grow, eco-friendly coffee cup options have become widely available. 

But, what are the most eco-friendly coffee cups available? I spoke to Conor Conway, founder of Epoch Chemistry Coffee House, a specialty coffee roaster and tasting room in New Brunswick, on the Eastern Coast of Canada, about his experience adapting in-store practices to meet consumer expectations.

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Defining eco-friendly coffee cups

Terms such as sustainable, compostable, biodegradable, and recyclable have all become buzzwords within the specialty coffee industry. Deciphering their meanings can be difficult, much like determining which eco-friendly materials are best for your business model.  

However, it’s important to remember the basic definition of eco-friendliness: materials that have little to no impact on the environment during their decomposition lifecycle or production. The life cycle of all eco-friendly cups surpasses that of their plastic or styrofoam counterparts in terms of overall environmental impact. 

As global awareness grows around the environmental impact of takeaway coffee cups, coffee businesses need to adjust their in-store practices by offering eco-friendly alternatives. Failing to do so puts them at risk of alienating the 25% of customers who prioritise sustainable spending.

Conor is also the director of coffee at Epoch and believes that in the realm of sustainability, few industries resonate as strongly as coffee. “The call for eco-conscious practices is especially pronounced in the realm of agricultural products and coffee – particularly specialty coffee – stands at the forefront. This aligns perfectly with a consumer base that values intentional interactions with products.”

Crafted from renewable resources, materials such as kraft paper, polylactic acid (PLA), and bamboo fibre, sustainable coffee cups boast a production phase with lower energy consumption and fewer pollutants. Beyond this, these materials break down naturally without leaching toxins into the environment. Researchers have demonstrated that compostable takeaway coffee cups can take between 6 to 12 months to fully decompose.

In contrast, plastic and styrofoam cups can take hundreds of years to decompose, with their non-biodegradable nature contributing to long-lasting pollution. Furthermore, the manufacturing processes for plastic and styrofoam takeaway coffee cups are highly energy-intensive and environmentally taxing.

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Understanding the pros and cons of eco-friendly coffee cups

While sustainable coffee cups have the potential to reduce environmental impact from beginning to end, there are some challenges and trade-offs associated with their production, performance, and disposal. First, consumer behaviour plays a big part in the overall eco-friendliness of takeaway coffee cups.

If consumers dispose of the cups incorrectly, they can take longer to break down. Therefore, if you’re offering compostable coffee cups with a PLA lining, for example, it’s important to communicate the correct decomposition practices to consumers.

Cafes and coffee roasters should inquire about local disposal facilities to determine which materials they will accept. This will help determine which material is best for your business. Beyond this, customising takeaway coffee cups with QR codes can help ensure consumers understand how to dispose of the cup. 

This is especially important for materials such as bagasse paper, which is stronger and more durable than its unfriendly styrofoam counterpart. Due to its heat-resistant nature, bagasse paper coffee cups can only be compostable at commercial industrial sites.

“Every move towards eco-friendliness is a stride in preserving the essence of the incredible coffee industry,” Conor says. 

When considering the vast array of options, it’s important to consider whether the material is suitable for your business model. Kraft paper is a naturally biodegradable and compostable material that can be enhanced with a plant-based or compostable lining for extra protection against the elements.

Kraft paper appeals to several consumers due to its sustainability. Its appeal to coffee roasters lies in its durability and ability to retain heat. 

Takeaway coffee cups made from bamboo fibre also provide a biodegradable alternative. Notably, bamboo is considered one of the most effective alternatives to plastics. Additionally, bagasse paper cups use a sugarcane process, making them a highly renewable, biodegradable, and compostable option.

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Which eco-friendly coffee cups are best for your business?

As we enter 2024, it is clear that coffee brands need to promote the use of materials that minimise environmental degradation. By switching to sustainable takeaway cups, coffee shops can continue serving coffee to-go while limiting their impact on the environment. Not only will this put them ahead of competitors, it will also improve the sustainability of the coffee supply chain. 

Conor explains that Epoch Chemistry Coffee uses double wall coffee cups as they’re fully recyclable in Eastern Canada. “Paired with high-resolution expert printing and a matte finish, our vibrant yellow takeaway cups are not only eye-catching but also contribute to a sustainable coffee experience.”

Honing down which eco-friendly coffee cup is best for you will ultimately come down to your business model. Coffee carts and takeout windows, which are unable to offer ceramic cups or facilitate reusable cup washing, find compostable or recyclable alternatives to be the most suitable options. The practices of your local recycling facilities, too, may play a part in determining which eco-friendly coffee cups are best for your business.

However, at MTPak Coffee, we can help you find the perfect fit for your business. We offer fully sustainable takeaway cups made from either kraft paper or PET with PLA lining. Strong, waterproof, lightweight, and compostable, they can be customised to your preferences using low VOC water-based inks. 

This affordable option will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also showcase your commitment to sustainability, putting you ahead of less eco-friendly competitors.

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

Images courtesy of Epoch Chemistry Coffee House

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