Moving Away From Disposable Paper Cups

Author: Mallory Bouchard

Every day, millions of people across the world are getting their quick fix of coffee as part of their daily routine. What most people do not consider is that their steaming hot beverage is served in a paper cup. So what? Think about how many disposable cups the average person uses in a year, multiplied by millions of people; this becomes 23 billion paper cups that end up in landfills each year.

As places such as China are becoming more industrialized and need their morning fix of coffee too, the use of paper cups will only increase. The movement towards bring your own reusable cup with you is upon us. Many coffee shops have started to offer a small discount for people who bring their own reusable mug, typically 10 cents. You get to save money and help the environment.

The problem with disposable paper cups

The paper cup is a typically made from bleached virgin paperboard and have a liner made of polyethylene, a plastic, bonded to the outer layer of the cup for insulation and durability. Millions of trees are being consumed, tons of greenhouses gases emitted, thousands of kilowatts of energy used, all for the production of the paper cup that gets used for about an hour. The plastic liner of the cup renders is un-recyclable. Most paper recycling plants will not accept the plastic in the cup as it can cause problems at the plant that they do not want to deal with.

Newer and more state of the art facilities can process the plastic, however, they require large volumes of the cups on a monthly basis and are very resistant to recycling them. The paper fibers that are extracted are of high quality because the paper cups are made from virgin wood. Sadly, most facilities are not equipped to recycle the paper cup and, thus, each year billions of paper cups and their plastic lids end up in landfills where they will stay for hundreds of years to come.

Landfills are tightly packed and are constantly growing, making it difficult for light and oxygen to penetrate and decompose products. Without the light and oxygen products just sit in a landfill, essentially mummifying. Once sitting in a landfill the paper cups lined with polyethylene can emit carcinogens, methane and carbon dioxide as they decompose, if they decompose at all. Methane is a much more efficient greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Chemicals may be released during the decomposition of the cup, but we also need to think about the potential chemicals that are leached while drinking a hot beverage. One study found that benzo[alpha]pyrene (BaP), a carcinogen, was leached from the paper cups when filled with hot water. If we can refrain from using the disposable paper cups, we can keep toxic chemicals out of our bodies and also reduce our contribution to climate change.

Biodegradable paper cups: Good news?

Coffee companies such as Starbucks and Tim Hortons have been receiving a lot of scrutiny because their disposable products are not recyclable or biodegradable. Paper cups in the past have not been made from recycled paper for health reasons. In 2006, Starbucks was able to launch a cup that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that was made from 10% post-consumer fiber (PCR). This was revolutionary for the coffee industry. While these cups are still not recyclable, they are a small victory because use slightly less virgin wood and they are saving trees. Starbucks has announced that they hope to launch a recyclable cup by 2012.

In 2007, a Starbucks rival, Tully, launched the Ecotainer, a compostable cup that is made from wood cultivated as part of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and is lined with a corn-based plastic, polylactic acid (PLA). Like all good things, there is a slight flaw to the Ecotainer. In order to serve its purpose, the Ecotainer must be disposed of in a proper composting facility.

PLA based cups are unable to biodegrade in your backyard composting bin and definitely not in a landfill because these cups need very specific conditions that only a professional composting facility can provide. Retailers are providing their customers with an eco-friendly option. Most people take the cup out of the store where they will likely not be near a composting bin and just toss the cup into the regular garbage destined for the landfill.

If the ultimate fate of the biodegradable cup is the landfill, why even bother using it in the first place? Even though they may not be composted, the production process of the PLA biodegradable cups uses less energy and emits less greenhouse gases than typical plastics. The SFI promotes conserving biodiversity and maintaining forest ecosystems while still providing socio-economic benefits.

Small coffee retailers have started moving towards biodegradable cups and provide compost bins inside the store in hopes of being more green and eco-friendly. While this is hopeful, the best thing you can do it bring your own cup when you get grab your hot or cold beverage, even if a recyclable cup option exists.

The eco-friendly way: Bring Your Own Cup!

The production of paper cups, biodegradable or not, is very resource and energy intensive. Typically, reusable cups will have a greater environmental impact than the paper cups during production. However, there is a point when the reusable cup ‘breaks even’ with the paper cup. A study done by sustainability engineer Pablo Päster found that one stainless steel mug is equivalent to 24 paper cups in terms of material intensity. Most reusable cups are designed to last thousands of uses, so once that initial 24 uses is out of the way, the reduction of the environmental impact can become very large.

The plastic lids can be replaced by products such as Mug Hug. The Mug Hug is a reusable lid made of silicon that is designed to stretch and fit on many standardized cups from Starbucks and other coffee companies, as well as mugs likely found in your kitchen cupboard. For those that find it difficult to grab their reusable cup or have it ready and washed and need to take a paper cup, using the Mug Hug can keep one more plastic lid out of the landfill.

If you are apprehensive about purchasing a reusable cup, just grab a mug from your kitchen cupboard on your way out of the house. Recycling an old mug from your house keeps avoids going through ‘break even’ because it likely already has. Using a mug from your kitchen saves you money as well as the impact on the environment from packaging, shipping and manufacturing. If you are prone to spilling, get yourself a lid for your favourite mug at home and take it with you to the coffee shop. Voilà, you have the best eco-friendly alternative to a paper cup.

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