100% plastic free to go cups: Are they the future of takeaway coffee?

Mounir Afkir
February 19, 2024
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A staggering 600 billion disposable cups are disposed of around the world each year, contributing significantly to the plastic pollution crisis. The convenience of takeaway coffee has inadvertently fueled a waste crisis, with traditional to go cups becoming emblematic of the environmental toll of single-use plastics.

The majority of to go cups are lined with a thin layer of polyethylene to make them waterproof. However, this coating can make takeaway coffee cups difficult to recycle. In turn, this means they may sit in landfills for hundreds of years, polluting the environment. 

In the wake of the plastic crisis, the introduction of sustainable to go cups has become a crucial step towards mitigating the environmental impact of daily coffee rituals. 

While compostable takeaway cups currently dominate the market, could 100% plastic-free alternatives be the future of the industry? I spoke to Carlos Valderrama, the founder of Coffee Hackers in Barcelona. 

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The importance of sustainable to go cups

The introduction of sustainable to-go cups has marked a paradigm shift in the coffee industry. These alternatives are crafted from eco-friendly materials including bamboo fibre, compostable paper, or plant-based bio-plastics. These materials are sourced sustainably and undergo a manufacturing process that minimises the use of conventional plastics derived from fossil fuels. 

Instead, these takeaway cups are made from renewable resources or recycled materials, ensuring minimal environmental impact. Additionally, these cups are designed to be fully compostable or recyclable at the end of their lifecycle, further reducing their environmental footprint.

According to a 2021 Tetra Pak and Ipsos study, consumers are making informed choices around product packaging. This is because they feel increasingly responsible for the wellbeing of the environment. The study also notes that companies that fail to provide sustainable packaging could end up falling behind eco-friendly competitors.

To reduce the volume of takeaway cups used, many coffee shops have encouraged customers to bring their own reusable cups by offering discounts. For example, popular UK coffee chain Pret A Manger takes 50p off all coffee orders if customers provide their own cup. As an added incentive, some have even started charging an extra fee for those who ask for a takeaway cup.

However, while this has been relatively successful, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic put a bump in the road. Concerns over health and safety meant coffee shops became reluctant to accept reusable cups. At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Starbucks went as far as to place a storewide ban on all reusable cups.

As a result, sustainable to go cups have risen in popularity. Affordable, lightweight, and robust, these cups do away with plastic PE lining in place of more eco-friendly alternatives such as polylactic acid (PLA).

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What are 100% plastic-free to go cups?

Essentially, plastic-free takeaway cups are designed to exclude plastic components. These eco-friendly alternatives prioritise renewable materials such as plant-based plastics, bamboo, or recycled paper to create a fully ‘eco-friendly’ product. 

Additionally, these cups will use a plastic-free dispersion barrier instead of a plastic coating. This sustainable coating ensures the to go cups can be recycled with normal paper waste. 

Notably, more manufacturers are replacing PE and PLA cup coatings with an aqueous lining. These coatings use a water-based dispersion system to create an effective, water-proof barrier. Aqueous linings are food safe, contain no colourings, and have no smell or taste.

Normally, a PLA or PE lining is ‘glued’ or sprayed onto the paper used to make the cup. However, this leaves a coating on the materials outermost layer. Aqueous linings act more like a paint or pigment in that it is painted onto the materials. As a result, most of the fluid soaks into the paper fibres, and only a small layer is needed to create an adequate barrier. Overall, many tend to prefer an aqueous lining as less is needed to prevent leaks.

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The benefits of sustainable takeaway coffee cups

It was during his youth that Carlos discovered his passion for coffee. He has spent years honing his sourcing, profiling, and roasting skills to offer local consumers some of the very best coffee in Barcelona. 

Carlos understands that when it comes to the specialty coffee value chain, “sustainability is not an option, it’s a necessity.” Therefore, he maintains direct oversight and often collaborates with all stakeholders, ranging from farmers to coffee consumers. Beyond this, Carlos has introduced a personalised, 100% plastic free reusable to go cup to Coffee Hacker Cafes.  

Additionally, Coffee Hackers offers consumers takeaway coffee in a standard white to go cup. This is accompanied by a kraft paper cardboard coffee sleeve that has been stamped with the brand’s logo in bold, black ink. 

Notably, this aesthetic ties in perfectly with the brand’s kraft paper coffee bags. Each bag has been custom printed to feature a ‘stamp’ of the brands’ logo and tagline that reads “life is too short for bad coffee.” Each bag features a card slot and custom printed coffee card that contains essential information about each coffee. This often includes the origins and processing methods. 

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 to go 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.

At MTPak Coffee, our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from recyclable materials such as PET, bamboo fibre, and kraft paper, with an environmentally friendly PLA or Aqueous lining. Our cups are available in three sizes: 4oz, 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, allowing you to feature your brand logo or recycling instructions. 

Packaging image courtesy of Coffee Hackers

For more information on eco-friendly coffee cups, contact our team. 

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