The Disposable Cup Crisis: What’s the Environmental Impact of a To-Go Coffee?

Single-use cups, such as those from Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and other cafes, are becoming increasingly popular due to their environmental impact. The slow decomposition of these cups, especially those with plastic linings, can release microplastics into the environment and potentially release pollutants into the air. Preetam Basu and Thanos Papadopoulos, professors at the Kent School of Business, argue that the entire lifecycle of disposable cups, from raw material extraction to production and transportation, requires significant energy, contributing to environmental degradation.

Styrofoam, or polystyrene foam, was invented in the 1960s to help beverages retain their heat longer. Today, the US produces about 3 million tons of polystyrene every year, with 80% ending up in the trash. Polystyrene takes about 500 years to break down, and manufacturing a single Styrofoam cup leads to about 33g of CO2 emissions. This is equivalent to driving about a 10th of a mile, which is equivalent to 21m tons of CO2 or the same amount that 4.5 million cars emit each year.

Styrofoam cups are lightweight and inexpensive but non-biodegradable, lasting in the environment for hundreds of years. Improper disposal may result in litter that harms wildlife and ecosystems. As it breaks down, polystyrene foam can also leach chemicals into the surrounding environment, including benzene and styrene, which are carcinogens. Some cities and states have banned polystyrene foam, while restaurants and stores are serving fewer hot beverages in polystyrene packaging.

In conclusion, single-use disposable coffee cups have a significant environmental impact, as they require significant energy and contribute to environmental degradation. By adopting reusable insulated cups and reducing the use of single-use, disposable coffee cups, we can work towards a more sustainable future for our planet.

Plastic cups are a common issue in the beverage industry, with most of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever created still existing. These cups are typically made from polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), with some companies also turning to polylactic acid, a bioplastic made from sugarcane or corn starch that is slightly more biodegradable. The breakdown of plastic takes incredibly long, first turning into super small micro and nanoplastics, which pollute our environment and bodies.

The EU and England have banned single-use plastic plates and cutlery, but the ban has not yet expanded to include cups. California is working to phase out single-use plastics, with a state law passed in 2022 requiring all packaging to be recyclable or compostable by 2032.

In the 1980s, the coffee industry switched from polystyrene foam cups to paper ones when Starbucks introduced specialty coffee beverages. However, a 2023 study found that paper cups can be just as toxic as plastic once they are thrown out, as they are not just paper, but also have a plastic lining to prevent leakage, making recycling difficult. This plastic lining can take decades to break down, leaching microplastics, and can end up in landfills where they decompose anaerobically, generating methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The manufacturing process of paper cups is also not great for the environment, as 6.5m trees are cut down every year to produce the 16bn paper cups we use each year. According to one study, a single paper cup (served with a paper sleeve) emits about 110g of CO2.

Company-led efforts to cut-back on single-use coffee cups are important, but not the only factor at hand in tackling the disposable cup crisis. Rachel A Meidl, an energy and sustainability fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, encourages consumers and policymakers to consider the full lifecycle of a product, from “cradle to grave,” and not just a single metric, like emissions.

As consumers start to question the existence of single-use plastics, more stores are opting into using biodegradable cups. However, even reusable cups have climate impacts, as they must be made and washed with hot water between uses. Reusable cups have to be used between 20 and 100 times to offset the emissions produced to make them, so the fewer cups in your cabinet the quicker you’ll justify that coffee run.

Read More @ The Guardian

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