What is the environmental impact of to go coffee cups? 

Maira Kanai-Nasir
June 28, 2024
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Several studies show the world is grappling with a growing pollution problem, and single-use plastics are primarily responsible for the waste. Recycling initiatives have increased, as have the use of more sustainable materials. So far, however, these have proven to be ineffective in curbing unnecessary plastic waste. A significant pollution stream stems from to go coffee cups, which are often lined with a plastic coating and disposed of carelessly. 

The growth of the global disposable cup market is primarily driven by three factors: increased urbanisation, a growing drinks service industry, and a demand for convenience that sees customers drinking on the go. According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), an independent coffee shop can sell between 200 and 300 cups per day. A large chain coffee shop can sell an astounding 700 cups of coffee per day. 

In the wake of the plastic crisis, the introduction of sustainable to go coffee cups has become a crucial step toward mitigating the environmental impact of daily coffee rituals. So, are they as eco-friendly as they seem? 

Conor Conway, founder of Epoch Chemistry Coffee House, and Rob Tilsley, Fibre Operations Group Leader at James Cropper, share their thoughts on to go coffee cups and how brands can reduce unnecessary waste. 

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A failure to breakdown: The impact of traditional to go coffee cups

Reports show that the US alone produces around 3 million tons of polystyrene each year. Additionally, around 80% of it ends up in waste, including around 25 billion takeaway coffee cups. In a landfill, it can take about 500 years for polystyrene to break down, and manufacturing just a single cup leads to an estimated 33g of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions

Beyond this, studies show that polystyrene can leach dangerous chemicals into the surrounding environment when it breaks down. This has led to many countries banning the material, particularly when it came to serving hot foods and beverages.

As a result, the popularity of paper takeaway coffee cups has risen. That said, a 2023 report found that paper cups can be as toxic as their plastic counterparts if disposed of incorrectly. This is typically because of a thin polyethylene plastic layer that coats the interior of paper cups. While this coating makes up less than 5% of the total cup, it would be enough to prevent it from being recycled.

During the recycling process, paper coffee cups are de-pulped. When this happens, the plastic coating breaks down into flakes. These often clog up the screen that separates paper fibres from other contaminants. Any plastic that passes through this process may pose issues by melting during the paper rolling process. This can cause the paper to break down, and the entire paper production process to grind to a halt. 

As with plastic cups, paper takeaway coffee cups require a specialised facility to remove this coating and process each material separately. Unfortunately, these facilities are not easily accessible, and therefore, suitable coating alternatives were required. The material needed to be cost-effective, durable, and able to provide thermal insulation. Furthermore, it needed to be economically competitive and capable of contributing to a circular economy.

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How eco-friendly can to go coffee cups really be? 

Epoch Chemistry Coffee House is a specialty coffee roaster and tasting room in New Brunswick, on the Eastern Coast of Canada. Founder Conor 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.

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

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Investing in sustainable to go 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. James Cropper has developed a process to recycle waste materials, specifically the trim from coffee cup production, into its products.

“Our quality is driven by the products that we are producing for the end users,” explains Rob, who has worked with the brand for over 17 years. He admits that originally, the company struggled to introduce waste streams into its products without causing contamination. “We recognised that [takeaway] coffee cups were a valuable source to us.” 

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.” 

That said, Rob explains that the brand struggles to collect enough recyclable cups. However, a mandatory cup take-back requirement will be implemented in the UK, where businesses with over 10 full-time employees will be required to have visible recycling bins on site. 

“This is exciting for us because there should be a lot more cups available to use,” Rob says. “We are working with the Cup Collective in Dublin and Brussels, where they’ll collect cups and bring them back here for recycling.”

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 sustainable takeaway coffee cups, contact our team

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Maira Kanai-Nasir
Maira Kanai-Nasir

Discovering specialty coffee whilst working in Australia, Maira has previously worked in Specialty Coffee as a trainer and coffee product buyer for many years. She currently resides in Dubai, UAE working as a specialty coffee writer, with a strong passion for all things coffee.

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