Paper Cups = Unsustainable Consumption

March 11th, 2014 BY Hilary Feldman | 21 Comments

Many Canadians – along with millions of counterparts in other countries – enjoy the simple pleasure of getting a coffee. Maybe a latte, cappuccino, or tea is more to your taste. Whether it’s an occasional treat or multiple times a day, visiting a local cafe or Starbucks, we beat a path to grab some quick and tasty caffeine.

But stop. Before you roll up that rim to win, you need to stop and think. Because our love affair with coffee on the go has a dark side. Every time your hot beverage comes in a disposable cup – usually with a lid – you become part of the problem.

Let’s start with the most obvious fact. Coffee cups are made of paper. A century ago when they were invented, paper cups were a simple cost-effective innovation that reduced disease transmission. But their popularity has grown and, in the US, 16 billion cups are used for coffee each year. This equals about 6.5 million trees. Overall, North Americans use 58% of all paper cups, amounting to a staggering 130 billion cups – including hot and cold beverages. But other countries, particularly China, are starting to catch up.

Most cups use high-quality bleached virgin paperboard. Recently, some coffee shops have demanded cups with recycled content. While these do reduce new wood consumption, they may assuage consumer guilt more than merited. Additionally in the US, the Food and Drug Administration regulates recycled content to ensure cup safety – 10% recycled content and 90% new paper is the maximum allowed.

Paper cups are coated with polyethylene for insulation and durability. This plastic resin prevents recycling of cups. In addition, it is a suspected carcinogen. Coffee lids are made of plastic too. The overall effect, while arguably preventing hot drinks from spilling, is to reduce the aromatic smell of the beverage. At the same time, it offers the perfect environment for chemical leaching by combining hot acidic fluid with plastic.

If we are talking about resource use, manufacturing paper cups requires many trees while processing consumes energy, water, and chemicals. Add in the plastics. Then consider the solid waste that results moments after you take the last swig and toss the cup. The real cost of 16 billion paper cups is nearly one million tons of wood, 4 billion gallons of water, and 253 million pounds of waste. Every tree used for paper cups is also removed from the ecosystem and can no longer absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, or filter groundwater.

So, don’t hesitate to be part of the solution. Bring a mug. Some coffee shops may even offer a financial incentive if you fill your own cup. Customers and businesses should take responsibility for shifting such unnecessary waste.

Unfortunately, not all options are created equal. For instance, many appealling and handy reusable coffee cups are made of durable plastic. That means that Bisphenol-A might be part of the chemical processing – one factor to consider, especially with hot beverages.

Maybe a stainless steel or ceramic mug is the best bet. If you are concerned that the total impact of manufacturing might be less sustainable, consider that one study showed stainless steel cups become more environmentally friendly options once they have been used 25 times. This comparison looked at the energy, water, and other resources required in production – as opposed to paper cups.

Inconvenient? Maybe to start with. But you will sleep better at night, and your grandkids may be able to wander shaded forest trails.

  1. John

    Thanks for the detailed information about the paper cups so many of us take for granted.

  2. Toni Stein

    the article states:
    US, the Food and Drug Administration regulates recycled content to ensure cup safety – 10% recycled content and 90% new paper is the maximum allowed.

    I looked on the FDA site and can not find any regulation on recycled content for cups or plates or any containers that may be in contact with food

    Can anyone point me?

  3. Hilary

    According to available information, the FDA is preparing a policy document about recycled paper containers. It will resemble the guidelines for recycled plastics. The basic legislation is concerned with additives from the pulp process: As with many regulations, this one is written in a vague fashion and requires each new proposal to be assessed.

    This New York Times article gives a good overview: As it stands now, the FDA has not posted an absolute measured quantity of recycled paper in food containers. Instead, there are guidelines about chemical content. But most pulp processors/recyclers are not certified to meet these limits. Part of the problem is meeting FDA approval:

    It seems that 10% recycled paper content is the maximum accomplished so far. This is true of European companies too :

  4. Pritam Kamath

    The alternative Total Chlorine Free Unbleached Cups should be the best choice.There are source where the producers of these paper can be contacted.The Paper is not only TCF it is also produced adopting recyling process which includes water as well.The product is manufactured using 40% Post consumer Paper & board which follows & records RFID tags & Tracabilty Records ,However we should change our mind set of using White Bleached cups instead we should seek & encourage use of Brown Cup which conforms to U.S.FDA Norms & Bfr Complainces.
    U.S is the largest users of Paper cups and most of them goes direct to land fills.The amount of chlorine released in the Soil-River-Fish-and ——–.

  5. Robert Daniel

    Local government really needs to step up it’s game in terms of recycling facilities for this sort of waste, without changes like this the waste is unlikely to be properly composted or recycled.

  6. stavy

    some coffee shops already offer a discount if you bring your own mug… Even the dreaded (whispers) Starbucks… well they do over here in the UK anyway…

  7. Crokus Youngland

    I thought wax was not harmful for the environment. Wouldn’t making a paper cup out of recycled paper then cover it with wax be a very wise option?

  8. robert

    I use a portable cup at Starbucks & they charge me for a Grande size but it only takes a large in volume so I am paying more, & no discount for bringing my own!

    • Responses to robert
      Driverlady says:
      April 13

      Order a Tall and they will fill it up for you. :-)

  9. Gaylen

    Where did you get all your statistics from? Nto that I don’t believe you, but I was looking for similar stats and have not been able to come across any,The real cost of 16 billion paper cups is nearly one million tons of wood, 4 billion gallons of water, and 253 million pounds of waste. ”Every tree used for paper cups is also removed from the ecosystem and can no longer absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, or filter groundwater.”

    • Responses to Gaylen
      Hilary says:
      September 8

      Some of the statistics were from this source:

      They say: “According to the paper industry, Americans will consume an estimated 23 billion paper coffee cups in 2010. Rob Martin, the Vice President of Merchandising and Production for Tully’s Coffee, estimated the 2006 use usage at 16 billion paper cups.[4]”

      The 16 billion cups number is used here too (along with referring to 6.5 million trees):

      This third site claims that a total of 58 billion disposable cups are used in the US each year, including both hot and cold drinks:
      They go to say: “645,000 tons of waste would be diverted from landfills each year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2.5 million mtCO2, equivalent to removing 450,000 passenger cars from the road.”

      It would be wonderful to have a definitive number from the paper industry. However, their statistics site appeared to be open to industry users only.

  10. John

    Tim Horton’s in Ontario recycles everything they sell. Paper cups and napkins go into Tim’s recycling food waste bins for composting. In Vancouver my Starbucks, Sorrento, Flying Wedge and Blenz give me a discount on my coffee in my stainless steel mug. Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?

  11. Trinh

    Thank you for the reminder of our responsibility to our environment. I did forget about that innocent plastic lid and sleeve jacket that is so convenient. Its our planet that is suffering the consequence and future generations too. We take the resources to our comfort and trash it back to the environment to deal with.

  12. Markus

    You state “In addition, [polyethylene] is a suspected carcinogen” with a link to a rather suspicious webpage. There, polyethylene is abbreviated with PET, which is nonsense.

    The only link to carcinogen substances I can see is a hoax from 2004 about PET (not PE) which should release DEHA (which in turn is food safe…), see

    The PE coatings of the paper cups may not be biodegradable, but they are certainly recyclable. It is mere a matter of logistics, mindset and cost why they land up on landfills…

    Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Regards, Markus

  13. Hilary

    Markus is correct to say there is no evidence of polyethylene (PE) being a carcinogen. The following website gives a little further information:

    It’s likely that the website linked to the article has confused PE with polyethylene terephthalate and/or polyethylene glycol, which are associated with more serious health issues.

    PE coatings on paper cups are not biodegradable, so these cups cannot be composted. Some companies have started to recycle these cups (e.g.
    ) but the facilities are not widespread at this point.

    It is true that logistics, mindset, and cost are the principle hurdles for recycling coated cups. They are also the main reasons that people expect the convenience of plastic-coated cups at every coffee shop. It would be wonderful if more recycling facilities were available, if more people recycled in general, and if we all cut down on unnecessary waste. In the meantime, taking a reusable cup is a simple solution.

    As a tea drinker, I find that very hot water can sometimes affect the PE coating in disposable cups. I like the flavour better without any plastic, in general.

    Of course, the other consideration is the disposable plastic lid usually attached to paper coffee cups. These lids usually end up in the bin too. While potentially recyclable, how many of them are? With cheap petrochemical plastics readily available, many places (whether towns, cities, regions, or countries) don’t have any plastic-recycling program.

    Each one of us has a choice. If – en masse – we exercise our right to choose sustainable options, that is a powerful message and provides a way to change things for the better.

  14. Robert

    What about the millions of clear plastic cups & lids available at these coffee outlets for cold drinks that are thrown out as well! Are theses recycled, please get a reuseable cup for coffee & the clear reuseable cup wirh straw for cold drinks & be part of the solution.

  15. Janice Shayne

    Hilary: Excellent work! Thank you for the thorough referencing. In my company, we strive to be a zero waste company, not only in our operations but with our manufacturing and ingredient sourcing. However, I am always looking for statistics to pass on to our clients (healthcare practitioners) to educate their patients with on how they can create a healthier lifestyle, and be more conscious of toxins their environment. This article alone gives me some important info to pass on.

  16. Jack Miller

    First, I want to explain that the problem with recycling these cups is collection, sorting, and logistics. It starts with the consumer in-store. Starbucks is working with Global Green and the New York Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR) on a pilot program to collect and recycle cups in New York. The vision is for the program to be scalable nationally. The PE coated cups can be recycled, but only in certain mills.

    One challenge is contamination. This starts at the store with education and consumer awareness. Recycling bins need to be well designed. Another challenge is that 70% to 80% of the beverages are consumed on the go and are hard to recover. Yet another challenge is that the volume of cups from any one store is so small that logistics is a problem. One solution is to collect the cups with old corrugated (OCC), but trials conducted so far suggest that the mills that are designed to recycle OCC don’t handle PE coated cups well, and vice versa. So far, it’s early. Hopefully, we will solve this.

    Second, I have to say that the emphasis on saving trees is flawed, at least to a degree. In North America, the paper industry plants more trees that it cuts, and many mills use renewable energy to large degree, mostly biofuels and hydroelectric. While it is true that, on average, recycled is better than virgin (less energy, less chemicals) most of the energy used in recycled mills is from fossil fuels. Also, if recycled content gets too high, paper mills end up with more waste and more energy consumption. In addition, going further afield to collect recovered fiber means more transport, more energy, and more greenhouse gases.

    It’s s complex equation. For every grade of paper, there is an optimal recycled content. For corrugated it is high, perhaps close to 100%. For food packaging and fine paper it is low. Maybe 20%, or even less. But it is wrong to assume that more is always better.

    For more about CoRR visit

  17. Craig

    What would happen if we all reused the current disposable cup and lid just once? Simple, the amount of trash would be cut in half. I think that’s pretty darn good.

    When I finish the coffee, my cup and lid have not been damaged and are not worn out. They can be used again.

  18. BTelis

    Thanks for sharing Hilary, very usefull information.

  19. Ecofriendly Package

    Paper cups with thick paper is available that is degradable and paper cups gives less cost than others.

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