First things first: most paper coffee cups aren’t recyclable. Traditional paper cups contain a plastic-based polyethylene liner that prevents liquids from seeping through the paper (pretty important), but renders the cups unrecyclable by most municipal facilities. Separating the plastic liner from the paper cup requires specialized equipment, forcing these facilities to send paper cups to landfills and incinerators.
How big is the problem? In the US, an estimated 54 billion paper cups are used each year. Each disposable coffee cup contributes 0.24 pounds of carbon gas (i.e. greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere. On an individual level, a person who purchased one cup of disposable coffee each day would be generating 23 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, 28 gallons of water usage, and 16 pounds of solid waste over the course of the year. Yikes.
Now for the good news. Growing concerns around increasing sustainability in business and decreasing waste have resulted in a slew of innovations in paper cup technology. Most of these are happening in Europe, but new technologies are also emerging in the United States. A proposed “Latte Levy” from the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee—a tax of 25 pence per non-recyclable cup— has heightened tensions around the topic of waste in the coffee industry and underscored the need for better options.
Solutions come in recyclable and compostable varieties, some that are starting on a small scale, and others that are going after large chains. Which solutions offer the most promise? Here’s the rundown:
FrugalCup by FrugalPac
FrugalCups by FrugalPac are made from recycled paper, which is an advancement in itself—most cups are made from virgin paper fibers. The cup features an inner plastic sleeve, which easily separates from the paper portion of the cup in a traditional recycling system. FrugalPac was founded by Martin Myerscough, who has been a prominent voice in the quest for better paper cup technology, even testifying before the UK Environmental Audit Committee. FrugalCups have trialed at several independent cafés in England, and Starbucks has reportedly agreed to trial the cups in some of their UK shops.
• Cups are made of recyclable paper, and can be recycled using traditional facilities.
• The liner uses more plastic than traditional cups, which doesn’t do anything to cut back on plastic use.
• Requires special equipment to be produced
Leaf by Zeus Packaging
The Leaf features a plastic inner cup that completely detaches from a recyclable paper sleeve. The layers are designed to be separated by the consumer via an easy-tear strip, resulting in a two pieces that are 100% recyclable.
• Both the paper and plastic components of the cup are 100% recyclable in existing recycling systems.
• If consumers don’t separate the two components, the cup is considered mixed material and cannot be recycled.
reCUP by SmartPlanet Technologies
The reCUP™ (also available under private label brands Vericup™ and Recycup™ among others) is one of the few recyclable cups available in the United States. Developed by a materials engineering company in Southern California, the reCUP appears identical to a traditional cup, but features a modified lining that easily breaks down like paper, making the cup compatible with existing paper recycling equipment.
• No change is required in manufacturing processes or speed to accommodate the cup, which is promising for scaling and cost.
• reCUP™ is commercially available now
• Depending upon the cup type, reCUP™ features anywhere from 40%–51% less plastic than traditional paper cups, but are not plastic-free.
Delipac by Delipac Limited
With a water-based lining, Delipac checks all the sustainability boxes: recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable. The UK-based company promises full recyclability in any paper waste stream.
• The water-based lining contains no plastic and offers ultimate versatility when it comes to environmentally friendly disposal.
• The paperboard mill manufacturing Delipac is capable of producing 500,000 tons of paperboard and is currently in process to double this capacity within 2 years and is about to go “live” with commercial cup production. (8,000 metric tons of paperboard will produce approximately 1 billion coffee cups). (800 metric tons 100 million cups).
ISLA by KotkaMills
Finland-based KotkaMills offers a line of paperboard products called Isla, featuring a water-based coating. The new paperboard is designed to run on existing cup and plate-making machinery. The cups can also be recycled using existing recycling streams.
• Isla’s water-based coating means no plastic is used in each cup, and the cup is fully recyclable using existing facilities.
• The cups are not yet commercially available, and the patented methods used to apply the water-based coating raise questions about scalability and performance.
What about compostable cups?
Compostable cups are made using a biopolymer—material that supports compostability and biodegradability. You’ve likely seen compostable cups and takeout containers in restaurants and cafés, as they’re more readily available in the United States than fully recyclable options. So why the push for recyclable cups?
A compostable cup isn’t any benefit if it can’t be composted. As far as infrastructure goes, recycling facilities are far more common than those for composting. Compostable cups aren’t recyclable because of the biopolymer coating, so they often end up diverted to landfills due to the lack of municipal composting facilities.
Another challenge of composting is that compostable paperboards don’t contribute nutrients to the soil. Composting food and other organic waste makes sense, since these items contribute nutrients. Unfortunately, compostable paper products often foul the compost by compromising its chemical makeup, rendering the compost unsuitable for use on farms and other areas where compost typically ends up.
With any solution, facilities need to be onboard to ensure that eco-friendly cups are not mistaken for traditional cups and thrown out. This will likely change over time, but early adopters may have to shoulder the burden of getting their local facilities onboard, or find a specialized closed-loop collection service.
The path toward improved sustainability in paper cups isn’t singular; rather, it’s the merging of many individual channels. Each of these solutions presents merits and challenges, but as more brands adopt these technologies, navigating compatibility with local infrastructure will get easier, innovation will continue, and the way forward will become more clear.