What to look for when sourcing eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups

Sam Shipiti
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July 8, 2024
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Environmentally conscious café and roastery owners seeking the best eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups face a conundrum. A report to the British House of Commons revealed the UK alone uses 5 billion takeaway coffee cups a year. According to the same report, only 1 in 400 of those cups were recycled, and about 4% of them ended up as litter. 

Notably, several studies indicate that regardless of material, no type of single-use cup consistently achieves the least environmental impact in all use cases. This includes both recyclable and compostable takeaway coffee cups, as well as traditional throwaway paper and polystyrene options. The best current science indicates the problem with single-use cups is not their material but the fact that they are single-use. 

Given the essential nature of takeaway coffee cups for any food or beverage business, it’s crucial to make informed decisions. Which type of eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups are best suited? And which have a minimal environmental impact? 

Read on as Devin Masters, the co-owner of Luma Coffee Roasters, shares his thoughts. 

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Eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups: Material types

When investing in sustainable takeaway coffee cups, it’s important to remember the basic definition of eco-friendliness: materials that have little to no impact on the environment during their decomposition lifecycle or production. In terms of overall environmental impact, the life cycle of all eco-friendly cups surpasses that of their plastic or styrofoam counterparts.

As global awareness grows around the environmental impact of takeaway coffee cups, businesses need to adjust their in-store practices by offering sustainable alternatives. Failing to do this risks alienating the 25% of customers who prioritise sustainable spending.

The majority of eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups can be identified by their intended disposal method, such as whether they are biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, or reusable. However, consumers often assume that ‘biodegradable’ means the material will completely disintegrate naturally in the environment. By extension, many think this means they can dispose of these materials however or wherever they wish, without consequence. 

In truth, biodegradable/compostable materials use biological processes to degrade naturally and yield carbon dioxide (CO2), water, methane, inorganic compounds, and biomass. It’s important not to confuse biodegradable with bio-based. For instance, plastics can either be bio-based or petrochemical-based. That said, not all bio-based materials are biodegradable, and not all biodegradable materials are bio-based. 

To be labelled compostable, materials must meet added requirements, such as degrading at a rate consistent with the biodegradation of other natural waste in the same composting environment. Plus, they must leave no visually distinguishable remnants or unacceptable levels of toxic residue.

Recyclable materials, on the other hand, can be recovered, processed, and remade into new items while retaining their original qualities. A related term is recycled, which refers to materials that have undergone this process. Recyclable materials include paper, aluminium, glass, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. 

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How do eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups benefit you?

Luma Coffee Roasters in Hammond, Louisiana, offers two takeaway coffee cup sizes, using different materials for hot and cold beverages. Owner Devin explains that for its cold beverages, the brand uses cups made from recyclable PET plastic that come with a sip-through PET lid. 

“Our hot options are made of paper and come with a black foam aroma lid that is also made of plastic,” he adds. “We use as many compostable materials as we can in our to-go products,” says Devin, while suggesting that there’s room to make recycling 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.”

Studies show many recycling programmes struggle to process petroleum-based plastics and paper cups lined with polyethylene or wax. However, suitable coating alternatives have emerged, with properties that make them just as capable as their unrecyclable counterparts. Polylactic acid (PLA) is a great example: a bioplastic that can be composted at home or in specialised facilities. 

Devin explains that Luma Coffee Roasters uses “sip-through lids to cut down on straw use.” Additionally, as the takeaway coffee cups themselves are a thinner plastic, he adds that “they introduce less overall plastic into landfills if they aren’t recycled.”

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What to ask yourself before investing

In an interview with an MTPak Coffee writer, David Allaway, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Materials Management Program (DEQ) had sound advice for those investing in sustainable takeaway cups. 

“Making a material selection based solely on end of life disposition is like going to a car lot and just buying any car because you like the colour, without giving any consideration to whether you can afford it or whether it is safe,” he said. “It’s focusing on the trivial at the expense of the significant.” 

Therefore, coffee brands must determine which environmental impact reductions are most critical or most aligned with their business ethics. Then, they must assess the differences in environmental impacts of available material options across their full life-cycle, not just how customers will dispose of them. 

One tool for assessing these variables is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Oregon’s DEQ defines a LCA as: “a systematic approach to estimating environmental burdens associated with drawing resources from the Earth, transforming them into usable technical materials, making items from them, distributing the items, using them and ultimately dealing with the remaining solid waste via different waste treatment and recycling activities.” 

When investing in eco-friendly coffee cups, brands must consider the following:

  • What specific recycling and composting options are available in the community?
  • How likely is it that customers will follow disposal guidelines?
  • Whether power generation in the community employs carbon-intensive fuel, renewables, or a mixture of both?

Using this information, brands can locate their business within this matrix and begin to look at what options may be most suitable. 

At MTPak Coffee, we have the expertise to provide business owners and coffee roasters with disposable coffee cups made from high-quality materials that are kind to the environment. Our range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups is made from biodegradable or recyclable materials such as bamboo fibre, PET, or kraft paper with an environmentally friendly PLA or aqueous lining.

Our takeaway coffee cups are available in the following sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz, 12 oz, and 24 oz. Beyond this, our eco-friendly coffee cups are strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable. Beyond this, they can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature your brand logo, QR codes, or recycling instructions.

Invest in eco-friendly takeaway coffee cups today!

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Sam Shipiti
Sam Shipiti

Born and raised in Kenya, a country famous for growing top grade coffee, Sam’s unique perspective is deeply rooted in his heritage. His writing journey has seen him contribute to magazines and coffee blogs, and work for global marketing agencies, honing his craft and establishing a strong voice in the industry. He now focuses on uncovering the unique stories and innovations fuelling the specialty coffee revolution.

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