Recyclable coffee cups made of paper are growing in popularity 

Mounir Afkir
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May 23, 2024
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Cups made of paper date back to the early 20th century and were first introduced to replace shared drinking vessels in communal spaces. Soon, takeaway coffee cups flooded the market, and during the 1960s, a polystyrene version surfaced. Within two decades, they were the go-to option for takeaway coffee.

However, environmental concerns around single-use cups made from styrofoam and plastics have increased significantly in recent years. As a result, several sustainable alternatives, such as compostable and recyclable coffee cups, have become widely available.  

Notably, the global paper and paperboard container and packaging market size is poised to reach $463.3 billion by 2028. Paper is considered one of the most environmentally friendly materials available. It’s an exceptionally versatile material that can be easily moulded and shaped to fit various products. Beyond this, it has the advantage of being bio-based, biodegradable, and recyclable. 

To better understand why recyclable coffee cups made of paper are gaining popularity, I spoke to Devin Masters of Luma Coffee Roasters, and Rob Tilsley, Fibre Operations Group Leader at James Cropper

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Why are paper coffee cups becoming so popular?

Consumers, especially Millennials and Generation Z, have become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their product choices. This has challenged manufacturers and brand owners to re-examine end-of-life options for paper coffee cups, including the collection, separation, and recycling of the different cup components.

A recent European survey of consumers across eight countries found that nearly 70% of consumers are actively taking steps to reduce their use of plastics. Furthermore, 48% say that they would avoid retailers that are not actively trying to reduce their use of non-recyclable plastic packaging. Notably, fibre-based packaging, such as paper, ranks highest with consumers for sustainability attributes. 

These include:

  • Home compostable (72%)
  • Better for the environment (62%)
  • Easy to recycle (57%)

Luma Coffee Roasters, based in Hammond, Louisiana, offers two takeaway coffee cup sizes, using different materials for hot and cold beverages. “The hot options are made of paper and come with a black foam aroma lid that is also made of plastic,” co-owner Devin explains. “Both cold options are made from recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic and come with a sip-through PET lid.

“We use as many compostable materials as we can in our to-go products,” Devin says. He adds that there’s always room to make recycling these items better. “One area I think could be improved is having an optional recycling bin in the shop,” he explains, adding that PET plastic is nearly infinitely recyclable. “Just having that option available in shops around the world would make a huge impact.”

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Manufacturing and recycling paper coffee cups

Most paper coffee cups are currently made from coated paperboard or cupstock, which is either single- or double-walled. As paper is highly permeable, it must be coated to prevent liquids from seeping out. This barrier coating is typically made from a thin layer of polyethylene (PE), which is extruded or laminated to the paperboard. However, PE is not biodegradable or compostable, which means sustainable alternatives are needed. 

Bioplastics such as polylactic acid (PLA), as well as water-based linings, also known as aqueous coatings, have become increasingly popular. Consistent testing has shown PLA offers effective barrier properties in a range of papers, provided it is applied properly, and is free from pinholes and air bubbles. A PLA coating has no odour or aftertaste as it is resistant to high temperatures, as well as 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. An aqueous coating reduces the amount of material needed while providing the same leak proof 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. 

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Consumers want products made from recyclable coffee cups

James Cropper is a family-led business that specialises in advanced materials and paper products. The brand recently developed a practice to upcycle disposable coffee cups into bespoke packaging and paper products. Notably, James Cropper provides packaging paper to esteemed brands such as Chanel and Burberry. The brand has developed a process to recycle waste materials, specifically the trim from coffee cup production, into its products. 

The initiative began 11 years ago and requires a specific process to separate plastic from fibre. Although James Cropper can only currently recycle plastic-lined takeaway cups, it separates and recycles the plastic, while processing the fibre into its paper products.

The fibre undergoes a thorough cleaning before being blended with other fibres and added to a larger pulp. This pulp undergoes a process to make paper, ensuring a high-quality, eco-friendly product.

“When we started [this process], there were only a few types of paper cups available,” explains Rob, who has worked with the brand for over 17 years. “Now, there are a myriad of takeaway coffee cups available. However, currently. It’s still only the (PE) plastic-lined cups that we can recycle.”

It’s important to note that James Cropper cannot recycle compostable or biodegradable coffee cups with an aqueous coating. This is because of the nature of the processes that the brand uses. ‘In our process, the coating actually breaks down and becomes part of the fibre,” Rob says. “The reason this is a problem is the coating [won’t] take any dye, so you’d have a nice black bag, but [there may] be white flecks in it.”

Research shows that a growing number of customers are keen to have products made out of recycled cups. “We saw there was a huge demand,” Robs says. “I think it’s because people can resonate with it: everyone has had a cup of coffee in their hand at some point.” 

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. 

For more information on bespoke disposable coffee cups, contact our team

Mounir Afkir
Mounir Afkir

Mounir is a Belgian living in Panama. After saying goodbye to a successful corporate career, he turned his passion and knowledge for nutrition, Chinese medicine, phytotherapy, and writing into his full-time focus. Mounir is also passionate about wine, and even more about speciality coffee and is the proud owner of Mounelli Specialty coffee-bar in Boquete.

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