How eco-friendly are paper takeaway cups?

Maira Kanai-Nasir
June 6, 2024
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Single-use plastics are a driving force behind the current waste crisis. According to Clean Water Action, the US alone disposes of around 130 billion single-use takeaway coffee cups a year. This has led to increased consumer demand for sustainable alternatives, such as recyclable packaging and paper takeaway cups.

Consumer preferences are shifting rapidly. Recent studies reveal that 81% of consumers favour eco-friendly materials. This shift in demand is a crucial factor that specialty coffee roasters must consider when making procurement decisions, as the use of unsustainable materials could potentially alienate customers.

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. 

But how eco-friendly are paper takeaway cups? And are they the right fit for your business? Conor Conway from Epoch Chemistry Coffee House shares his thoughts. 

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How sustainable are paper takeaway cups?

Paper takeaway cups are typically made from renewable resources like wood products, making them a more sustainable choice than conventional plastic cups derived from fossil fuels. Additionally, paper cups have a lower overall energy use and environmental pollution footprint. 

Some paper cups are also biodegradable and can be easily recycled, reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or oceans. Choosing paper takeaway cups helps to promote a circular economy and minimise environmental pollution.

Over time, the transition to paper takeaway cups can also save you money, as the production and disposal of these cups are often more economical than their plastic alternatives. That said, some paper takeaway cups may be lined with a thin layer of polyethylene plastic. 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 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.

Several sustainable alternatives have become popular, including bioplastics such as polylactic acid (PLA) and aqueous coatings, which are essentially water-based linings. 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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Will paper takeaway cups work for your business?

Conor is the founder and director of coffee at Epoch Chemistry. 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.”

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 paper takeaway cups to be the most suitable. Additionally, your local recycling facilities will determine which lining is best for your paper cups.

However, those offering cold brew coffee may find paper takeaway cups a challenge. First, as paper cups are primarily intended for hot drinks, they come with a lid. Each lid has a small opening for the mouthpiece, which helps keep the drink hot for as long as possible and minimises spills. Many consumers prefer to use a straw when drinking cold brew coffee – which the mouthpiece of a lid is unable to accommodate.  

The second challenge is condensation: which is likely to form in a cup filled with cold brew coffee. Unlined paper cups will absorb the water, which will weaken their structural integrity. This may cause the paper cup to feel unstable or even mushy in the consumer’s hands – effectively spoiling the drinking experience.  As a result, cups made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and PLA have become the most popular option for takeaway cold brew coffee.

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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.

For your cold brew coffee offerings, our plastic takeaway cups are made from recycled materials and can be fully customised with your branding. Our range also 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.

Invest in paper takeaway coffee cups today! Contact us for more

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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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