What are aqueous coatings for takeaway coffee cups?

Tori Taylor
March 8, 2024
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Terms such as “sustainable”, “compostable”, “biodegradable”, and “recyclable” have become buzzwords within the specialty coffee industry. However, deciphering their meanings can be a challenge, much like finding eco-friendly materials that are best suited to your business.  

By definition, eco-friendly materials have little to no impact on the environment during their lifecycle. As a result, many takeaway coffee cups are now made from sustainable materials and feature an eco-friendly inner coating. 

For the majority of takeaway coffee cups, this inner coating is made from a bioplastic such as polylactic acid (PLA). However, some manufacturers have switched to water-based linings, also known as aqueous coatings. 

So how do aqueous coatings for takeaway coffee cups work? And more importantly, are they as sustainable as they appear? Conor Conway from Epoch Chemistry Coffee House and Emile Fourie of Ywaste Solutions in Cape Town, South Africa, share their thoughts.

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Why do takeaway coffee cups need to be coated? 

Single-use takeaway coffee cups made of paper currently dominate the disposable cup market. These are made using pulped wood chips that have been bleached and processed. However, paper is highly permeable and must be coated to prevent liquids from seeping out. Typically, a thin polyethylene plastic layer is then heated and applied to the interior of the cup.

While this coating makes up less than 5% of the total takeaway coffee cup, it is enough to prevent it from being recycled. During the recycling process, paper cups are de-pulped. When this happens, the plastic coating breaks down into flakes which clog the screen that separates paper fibres from other contaminants.

Any plastic that passes through the screen can then cause further issues. It melts when the pulp is rolled, which can cause damage to the paper, and in turn, halt the entire production process. As with plastic cups, paper takeaway cups require a specialised facility to remove this coating and process each material separately.

Unfortunately, these facilities are not easily accessible, which means an alternative coating is required. The material needs to be cost-effective, durable, and able to provide thermal insulation. Furthermore, it must be cost-effective and capable of contributing to a circular economy. While several alternative materials exist, bioplastics such as PLA have become a popular choice.

“Most compostable food service products, such as takeaway coffee cups and single-use cutlery, are often made ‌of PLA,” says Emile, who is the co-founder and managing director at Ywaste Solutions. PLA is a plant-based bioplastic made from renewable resources, including cornstarch and sugarcane. It offers a strong, waterproof coating that can support both hot and cold liquids without affecting the flavour of the drink. Additionally, it dissolves harmlessly into the soil under specific conditions.

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How does an aqueous coating work? 

A PLA coating is popular as it can be applied to cups using existing extrusion equipment. Depending on its additives, weight, and processing conditions, it can be recycled or biodegraded in residential or industrial facilities. Beyond this, a PLA coating has no odour or aftertaste as it is resistant to high temperatures and the fatty acids found in drinks that contain milk.

Alternatively, an aqueous coating is a water-based lining used on paper cups. It differs from other coatings in that it is printed much like a water-based ink. This allows it to absorb into the paper fibres instead of sitting on top as an additional layer. Essentially, an aqueous coating reduces the amount of material needed while providing the same leakproof benefits as other coatings. 

Paper cups with an aqueous coating are more likely to be recycled as they don’t require specialised treatments or facilities. After being rinsed, they can be placed in any paper or cardboard recycling bin, as they go through the same processes as any other recyclable card or paper. 

Conor is the founder and director of coffee at Epoch. He believes that sustainability is more highly valued in the coffee industry than in many other sectors. 

“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.”

However, it’s important to note that aqueous linings use water-based dispersion to create a food-safe, grease-resistant barrier. As part of this, they contain polymers and additives. The amount is relatively small compared to PE and PLA, but aqueous linings still cannot be considered plastic-free.

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Investing in takeaway coffee cups

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.

“Every move towards eco-friendliness is a stride in preserving the essence of the incredible coffee industry,” he adds. Deciding which eco-friendly coffee cup is best for you will ultimately come down to your business model. 

Coffee carts, kiosks, and drive-thrus, which are often unable to offer ceramic cups or facilitate reusable cup washing, generally find compostable or recyclable alternatives to be the most suitable. Additionally, your local recycling facilities will determine which lining for takeaway coffee cups is best for your business.

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

Our options also include compostable takeaway coffee cups made from recycled kraft paper. Customers can choose between a PLA or aqueous lining for their cups to ensure they align with local disposal requirements.

Our range includes double and single-wall cups, as well as coffee cup sleeves. We can also help you brand your takeaway coffee cups with details of your business, or a simple QR code to communicate the cup’s recycling qualities to customers.

Images courtesy of Epoch Chemistry Coffee House

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

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Tori Taylor
Tori Taylor

Victoria is a highly experienced content creator, writer, and editor based out of South Africa. With the experience gained by working in newsrooms and writing for lifestyle magazines, she is now focussed on creating insightful and relatable content for the specialty coffee community.

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