Eco-friendly coffee cups: Which is best for your business?

Paul Clearfire
January 12, 2024
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Environmentally conscious café and roastery owners seeking the best eco-friendly coffee cups face a conundrum. A report to the British House of Commons revealed the UK alone uses 5 billion takeaway coffee cups a year. According to the same report, only 1 in 400 of those cups were recycled and about 4% of them ended up as litter. 

Notably, several studies indicate that regardless of material, no type of single-use cup consistently achieves the least environmental impact in all use cases. This includes both recyclable and compostable cups, as well as traditional throwaway paper and polystyrene options. The best current science indicates the problem with single-use cups is not their material but the fact that they are single-use. 

However, reusable cups and ceramic mugs are unlikely to work with all business models. So, which type of eco-friendly coffee cups are best suited? And which will have the minimal environmental impact? 

To learn how decision makers can sort through dozens of environmental impacts to develop full Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for each type of cup, and use those as a tool for discovering the best outcomes for packaging decisions, I spoke to David Allaway, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Materials Management Program (DEQ). 

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The importance of eco-friendly coffee cups

Over the last few years, reusable cups have become the go-to choice for many coffee consumers. Across the majority of environmental impacts, they are often the least problematic choice. The conundrum faced by decision makers in specialty coffee is that reusable cups are often ill-suited for many business models. 

SMEs running on tight margins may find the costs of washing, storing, and maintaining reusable cups prohibitive. Beyond this, incentivising customers to bring their own can also be challenging. Customers buying coffee spontaneously or on the go may not carry reusable cups with them. 

Therefore, minimising environmental effects means choosing the least problematic single-use cup alternative. This makes it all the more critical for business owners to choose a sustainable coffee cup that is best suited to their region’s waste management infrastructure and customer behaviour. 

Sorting through the bewildering array of options can be quite daunting. However, a deeper understanding of the materials, manufacturing processes, and disposal options of eco-friendly coffee cups can make the decision easier. 

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Understanding the materials in eco-friendly coffee cups

The majority of ‘eco-friendly’ coffee cups can be identified by their intended disposal method. For instance, whether they are biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, or reusable. That said, the terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are often used interchangeably despite being different. 

Many assume ‘biodegradable’ means a material will completely disintegrate naturally in the environment. By extension, many think this means they can dispose of these materials however or wherever they wish, without consequence. 

In truth, international standards describe several levels of ‘biodegradability’. These attributes depend on the degradation characteristics of materials observed under specific conditions. Manufacturers typically cite the European industrial standard EN 13432 or the international standard ISO 14855-1 as proof of ‘biodegradability. 

Scientists developed these standards as guides to a material’s ‘compostability’. They base the standards on measurements of the material’s rate of ‘biodegradation’ within an industrial composting environment. Thus, ‘biodegradable’ claims based on these standards actually mean that the product is “biodegradable in a municipal or industrial composting facility”.

Biodegradable/compostable materials degrade naturally by biological processes to yield carbon dioxide (CO2), water, methane, inorganic compounds, and biomass. It’s important not to confuse biodegradable with bio-based. For instance, plastics can either be bio-based or petrochemical-based. 

Manufacturers typically make bio-based materials from corn, cassava, sugar cane, or algae, while they derive petrochemical-based materials from petroleum. Not all bio-based materials are biodegradable. And not all biodegradable materials are bio-based. 

To be labelled compostable, materials must meet added requirements, such as degrading at a rate consistent with biodegradation of other natural waste in the same composting environment. Plus, they must leave no visually distinguishable remnants or unacceptable levels of toxic residue. Notably, compostable materials are either home compostable or industrial compostable, depending on the conditions they require.

When consumers discard items that contain bio-based compostable plastics into landfills, the plastics are unlikely to break down as expected. Under anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions found in most landfills, bio-based compostable plastics produce methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2. Examples of compostable materials are paper, cardboard, bio-based plastics such as polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs and PHBs). 

Recyclable materials, on the other hand, can be recovered, processed, and remade into new items while retaining their original qualities. A related term is recycled which refers to materials that have undergone this process. Recyclable materials include paper, aluminium, glass, and Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic. 

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Bringing it all together: the Life Cycle Analysis 

According to a 2021 report, “single-use cups have similar environmental impacts regardless of their material (whether bio-plastic, fossil-based plastic or paper)”. Due to the degree of variability revealed in the study, a key message is that material choices must be “context specific, locally relevant, and take into consideration the role of human behaviour as there is no one-size-fits-all approach.” 

To decipher the implications of this statement, David explains it is problematic to use end-of-life attributes as the prime driver for material choices. “When we look at where the [climate impacts] from materials are coming from, 1% is from disposal, and 99% comes from resource extraction and manufacturing.” 

“Making a material selection based solely on end of life disposition is like going to a car lot and just buying any car because you like the colour, without giving any consideration to whether you can afford it or whether it is safe,” he adds. “It’s focusing on the trivial at the expense of the significant.”

Coffee brands must determine which environmental impact reductions are most critical or most aligned with their business ethics. Then, they must assess the differences in environmental impacts of available material options across their full life-cycle, not just how customers will dispose of them. 

One tool for assessing these variables is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Oregon’s DEQ defines a LCA as: “a systematic approach to estimating environmental burdens associated with drawing resources from the Earth, transforming them into usable technical materials, making items from them, distributing the items, using them and ultimately dealing with the remaining solid waste via different waste treatment and recycling activities.” 

When investing in eco-friendly coffee cups, brands must consider the following:

  • What specific recycling and composting options are available in the community?
  • How likely is it that customers will follow disposal guidelines?
  • Whether power generation in the community employs carbon-intensive fuel, renewables, or a mixture of both?

Using this information, brands can locate their business within this matrix, and begin to look at what options may be most suitable. 

To learn more about the eco-friendly coffee cups offered by MTPak Coffee, contact our team

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Paul Clearfire
Paul Clearfire

Paul Clearfire is a coffee historian and author living in Portland, OR, and has spent the past 20 years perfecting the art of manual espresso extraction. He's been writing for Perfect Daily Grind Media since 2023.

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