The hidden environmental impacts of the humble paper cup


1 million disposable cups end up in the landfills around the world every minute. That’s 500 billion every year.

For many of us, buying coffee has become such a mundane daily routine for our half-awake selves that we have lost count of how many paper cups we drink from, and then throw out. An estimated 90% of these cups end up in landfills: they are now the second largest contributor to litter waste globally, after plastic bottles. If you are semi-conscious of environmental issues, you may toss your disposable coffee cup into the recycling bin, and perhaps you even go to the effort of separating the cup itself from the lid.

Yet in truth, almost all disposable coffee cups are coated with a plastic resin called polyethylene, which means they cannot be easily recycled or composted. Moreover, there is a danger of carcinogenic chemicals leaching from the polyethylene into your hot coffee. The plastic coating is meant to give the paper cup better insulation and durability, but upon second thought, maybe this idea isn’t so great.

The environmental threats of these coffee cups actually begin before they’re even used. The paper used to make disposable cups cannot be from recycled sources, due to contamination concerns. Perhaps this is understandable, but we must remember that paper production leads to deforestation, ecosystem degradation and decreased carbon absorption capacity. To put the magnitude of this issue into perspective, through manufacture and transport, the global paper cup industry releases 55 billion pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, equivalent to the total emissions from 5270 passenger vehicles driven over the same period.

As concerns about sustainability increase, two solutions have been offered to the environmentally conscious public. First is the slow rise of plastic coatings made from polylactic acid, a naturally produced biodegradable plastic, instead of the petroleum-based polyethylene. However, while there are certain benefits of bio-plastic, 2.65kg of corn is required to make 1kg of bio-plastic. Thus, this would remove significant amounts of corn crop from the world’s food supply.

The second solution is much more simple: bring your own reusable cup. It’s not anything new or innovative but it is certainly the most effective. Some coffee shops even offer a discount when you bring your own cup!

A variety of different companies have developed reusable cups that come in standard coffee sizes, are crafted to barista standards and copy the design of their disposable relatives. While the market offers cups in variety of materials such as glass and stainless steel, many are made with plastic, including the popular Australian-designed-and-made KeepCup. At first glance, these plastic options may appear unsustainable, but reusing your cup means less plastic and less energy in the long run. KeepCup notes that fifteen uses of a small cup will break-even with disposable cups on energy requirements in manufacturing the products. The plastic used in many of these options is BPA-free (meaning it’s safe for use with hot drinks), recyclable, and durable. KeepCup also offer glass options, and brands such as Cheeki use stainless steel; these alternatives come with their own pros and cons, including higher energy requirements in manufacturing and increased durability. The fact is, though, that with so many possibilities, you are bound to find one that suits.

As someone who likes to grab a takeaway coffee to drink at my morning lectures, I wanted to decrease the horrid amount of disposable cups I used every week, so I purchased a glass KeepCup at the beginning of this semester. The glass cup is heavier than plastic or steel options, but I haven’t found it inconvenient to carry in my bag. The best part is that the lid can be tightly closed using a swivel plug, preventing spillage on the go. I also manage to remember to bring my cup to uni with me every day because using my own cup strangely made my morning coffee seem more exciting.

It is up to us to change our behaviour and demands in ways that benefit the environment, but these changes don’t need to be inconvenient. Since I started using my glass coffee cup two months ago, I’ve avoided drinking from more than 30 disposable cups that would otherwise be now in a landfill. Such small and simple changes are often overlooked when discussing the broader issues of climate change and environmental sustainability.

In a world where we fill the air with carbon dioxide and cut down forests to make way for landfills, we shouldn’t normalise our carbon footprint or ecosystem degradation. We shouldn’t normalise the culture of one-use non-recyclable products. When we realise our unsustainable behaviour, we have to stand up against these practices and it can all start with replacing the seemingly harmless disposable cup.

(Places on campus that offer discounts for bringing your own cup/mug include the Food Co-op and Biginelli Espresso in the CBE building. The Food Co-op also sells a variety of reusable cups.)