No matter how flavor trends or customer demographics evolve, no conversation about the future of coffee can ignore its packaging – the disposable coffee cup. A growing percentage of foodservice operators believe disposables can serve as a means of enhancing their takeout program.1 In the competitive coffee shop business, this will make choosing the right cup an increasingly important decision.
Today, research shows that price and functionality are the top factors operators consider when evaluating foodservice disposables, including cups. However a third factor, environmental friendliness, is expected to continue growing in importance to consumers, regulators, municipalities, and operators.2 Looking ahead, choosing the right cup will involve balancing three key priorities: performance, price and environmental impact.
Start by Understanding the Impact of Different Substrates
Begin by gaining an understanding what goes into your current disposable cups. Like recipes, disposables cups have ingredients. And, like in recipes, these ingredients change over time to reflect changing costs and consumer preferences. The primary ingredients of foodservice disposables are called substrates. There are four primary cup substrates: paper, foam, plastic and plant-based renewables.
Paper. Paperboard used to manufacture disposable cups is made from trees and/or recycled paper fiber. Although it is typically a lightweight and flexible material, paper substrates can be layered together to add strength, durability, insulation properties, and a printable surface to a finished disposable cup. Consumers give paper cups high marks on environmentally friendliness3 because they are made from a renewable resource, often contain recycled fiber, and may be recyclable and/or compostable. Paper cups are generally more expensive than foam cups but less expensive than plastic cups.4
Foam. Foam cups are made from polystyrene, a petroleum-based resin. Lightweight with excellent insulating properties, foam cups are low in cost, but bulky to handle and store.5 Consumers, operators and municipalities have environmental concerns about foam. Foam will not compost, and recycling foam products has proved impractical. As a result, foam has been banned in over 100 municipalities.6 The industry is working to develop foam products that include recycled content and biodegradable polystyrene resins to counter environmental concerns.
Plastic. Plastic substrates are made from a variety of petroleum-based resins such as polypropylene, polyethylene (PET) and polystyrene. Different resins make plastic a versatile material. For operators, this means options. Plastic foodservice disposables come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, clarity and offer printable surfaces. Recycled materials can also be incorporated. Just as the finished product characteristics of plastic foodservice disposables vary, so does the environmental impact. PET, for example, has a well-established recycling infrastructure whereas others do not. Foodservice disposables made from plastic are generally more expensive per unit than foam or paper.7
Alternative Plant-Based Renewables. Starches derived from plants such as corn, potatoes and sugar cane have been developed that serve as substitutes for petroleum-based plastics and other traditional materials. Polylactic acid (PLA) is a commonly-used example. Typically derived from corn, PLA is used as a coating for cups that helps seal the item and prevent leakage. In addition to being made from renewable sources, PLA offers two key advantages over petroleum-based alternatives. First is its lower environmental impact to produce and second, it can make the final product compostable in commercial facilities.8 A key drawback to the increased use of plant-based renewables is its high cost relative to paper, foam and plastic substrates.
In addition to the properties of the substrates, here are some additional factors to consider in choosing the cup that will add value to your business and take out program.
Operating Efficiency. Evaluate cups based on the complete operating solution they offer. For example, choosing an alternative with stackability and storage requirements that work in your prep areas can save time, especially during peak hours. Consider the full benefits of specific cup and lid combos for ease of use and patron satisfaction.
Source Reduction. Choose foodservice disposables that contain recycled material or are designed to minimize the amount of raw material required in production and packaging. Ask where products are made and what measures manufacturers take to conserve resources in the production process.
Waste Reduction. Minimizing waste reduces the costs of waste handling. A quality insulated hot cup, for example, can reduce the waste associated with double cupping or paper sleeves needed to serve hot beverages in an inferior cup. Consider the costs of waste disposal including transporting, landfilling, recycling and composting when reviewing product alternatives.
Competitive Advantage. Six in ten consumers want foodservice establishments to communicate their sustainability initiatives more aggressively.9 How can disposable cups help? Many are customizable and can carry your sustainability message. Ask for stock items that include sustainability information from the manufacturer regarding third party certifications or recycled content. Take advantage of custom print options to promote your brand.
Supplier Partners. Finally, look for a supplier who can deliver all of the ingredients for a successful foodservice disposables program. These include a variety of proven substrates, third party certification of manufacturing processes, use of recycled content and operating efficiencies that drop to your bottom line.
1 Technomic: Foodservice Single Use Disposable Packaging Assessment, 2014
4 Freedonia: Industry Study, Cups & Lids, 2014
6 Groundswell.org: Which Cities have Banned Plastic Foam, 2015. mailto:groundswell.org/map-which-cities-have-banned-plastic-foam/
7 Freedonia: Industry Study, Cups & Lids, 2014
9 Technomic: Building a Better Foodservice Business Through Sustainable and Responsible Practices, 2013