The issue with disposable cups: what is the ecological consequence of taking your coffee to-go?
No matter how delicious the coffee in your office may be, chances are you still visit a cafe at least once a week to indulge in a cup made by someone else. This could be a latte from Starbucks, a cold brew from Dunkin’, or a chai from the local shop down the street. Unfortunately, these beverages are typically served in disposable cups, whether they be made of paper, plastic, or polystyrene foam (often referred to as Styrofoam). These cups are easily disposed of in the nearest trash can while walking back to the office. However, it’s important to remember that their impact on the environment does not end there.
Thankfully, an increasing number of individuals are beginning to include a reusable insulated cup or mug in addition to their water bottle – and more cafes are now willing to pour drinks into these cups brought from home by customers. Recently, Starbucks declared that it was fully adopting BYOC (bring your own cup) policy. While the company has permitted customers to bring their own cup for in-store purchases since the 1980s, its decision to extend BYOC to drive-through and app orders reflects the growing concern among both businesses and consumers regarding the use of single-use, disposable coffee cups.
What is the ecological effect of a single-use cup? It appears to be significant.
According to a statement from professors Preetam Basu and Thanos Papadopoulos, co-authors of a 2022 report on coffee cup waste from the Kent School of Business, the production and transportation of disposable cups requires a significant amount of energy, which contributes to environmental harm. The slow breakdown of these cups, particularly those with plastic linings, can also result in the release of microplastics into the environment. And if these cups end up in incinerators, this process can release pollutants into the air.
is a type of
Polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, is a variety of material.
The initial disposable cup was created using paper. The Dixie Cup gained popularity during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak as a hygienic alternative for communal drinking from wells or water fountains. However, coffee establishments switched to polystyrene foam in the 1960s due to its ability to keep beverages hot for a longer period of time.
Currently, the United States produces approximately 3 million tons of polystyrene annually, with 80% of it ending up in landfills. This includes an estimated 25 billion cups each year, resulting in polystyrene taking up one third of landfill space. As a waste product, polystyrene can take up to 500 years to decompose. The production of a single Styrofoam cup emits around 33 grams of CO2, which is equivalent to driving one-tenth of a mile. While this may not seem significant, when considering the overall amount of polystyrene produced in the US each year, it adds up to 21 million tons of CO2 emissions. This is comparable to the emissions of 4.5 million cars in a year.
According to Basu and Papadopoulos, Styrofoam cups are affordable and easy to carry, but they do not decompose naturally and can remain in the environment for a long time. If not disposed of properly, they can contribute to litter that can harm animals and their habitats. The foam material can also break into smaller fragments, adding to litter and endangering wildlife that may consume it.
When polystyrene foam breaks down, it can release chemicals into the surrounding area (the same thing happens when it contains coffee): polystyrene is created using carcinogenic substances such as benzene and styrene.
Many cities and states, including Maine and Los Angeles, have prohibited the use of polystyrene foam. In general, there has been a decrease in the use of polystyrene packaging for hot beverages by restaurants and stores (even Dunkin’ stopped using it in 2020).
While disposable cups are not typically used for hot drinks, discussing them would be incomplete without mentioning plastic. Plastic cups, such as the iconic red Solo cups found in college dorms and the clear cups used for Boba tea or iced lattes, are commonly used and quickly discarded throughout the country.
Plastic cups are commonly produced using either polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Some companies are now using a third type of plastic, polylactic acid, which is derived from sugarcane or corn starch and is more biodegradable. However, like polystyrene foam, these traditional plastics break down very slowly, eventually turning into micro and nanoplastics that can harm our environment and our bodies. Due to their slow decomposition, the majority of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever created still exists. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted from a single-use plastic cup varies depending on the type of plastic used and how it is disposed of, ranging from 10g to 30g.
According to Basu and Papadopoulos, plastics do not break down naturally and can persist in the environment for many years. As they break down, they turn into tiny pieces called microplastics that can cause harm to ecosystems and wildlife. A significant amount of this plastic ends up in the ocean, approximately 10 million tons every year, and eventually makes its way into our bodies through microplastics that are released from plastic water bottles, cups, and the food we consume. These microplastics can release harmful chemicals that can potentially cause cancer and disrupt our hormone systems.
This is one of the reasons why the EU and England have prohibited the use of disposable plastic plates and cutlery, although cups are not yet included in the ban. While the US has not implemented any national bans on plastics, California is making efforts to eliminate single-use plastics. By 2032, a state law passed in 2022 will mandate all packaging to be either recyclable or compostable.
During the 1980s, there was a significant shift in the coffee industry from using polystyrene foam cups to paper ones, largely influenced by the emergence of Starbucks. Unlike traditional black coffee, Starbucks introduced a range of specialty coffee drinks such as lattes and cappuccinos. As these drinks required foam, Starbucks began using domed lids which were only compatible with paper cups.
Despite the perception that paper cups are more environmentally friendly, a study conducted in 2023 discovered that they can be equally as harmful as plastic when disposed of. This is due to the fact that paper cups are not solely made of paper – if they were, they would not be able to hold hot liquids without leaking.
Basu and Papadopoulos stated that paper cups are able to naturally break down and become compost under specific circumstances, making them a comparatively more environmentally friendly option. However, these cups frequently contain a layer of plastic to prevent leaks, which can complicate the recycling process. This plastic lining can take many years to degrade and during this time, it can release harmful microplastics. Additionally, the decomposition of paper itself can also have negative impacts on the environment. If not disposed of or recycled properly, paper cups can end up in landfills where they break down without oxygen, producing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
The production of paper cups has a negative impact on the environment, with 6.5 million trees being cut down annually to meet the demand of 16 billion paper cups. A study found that one paper cup with a paper sleeve emits approximately 110 grams of CO2.
What can be done?
Efforts initiated by companies to reduce the use of single-use coffee cups, similar to those being implemented by Starbucks and other chains, are significant. However, they are not the sole solution to addressing the issue of disposable cup waste.
According to Rachel A Meidl, an energy and sustainability expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute, simply banning single-use plastics is not enough to address the larger issue of consumption and waste. She believes that relying on a ban as the only solution is short-sighted and insufficient for a society facing a complex and interconnected global waste issue.
The speaker suggests that instead of focusing on one aspect, such as emissions, consumers and policymakers should think about the entire lifespan of a product. They believe that the most effective policies are those that promote keeping products in use for longer periods of time.
As the public begins to doubt the necessity of disposable plastics, many retailers are choosing to switch to eco-friendly cups. However, Meidl warns customers to be cautious of trusting every biodegradable cup, as some companies may falsely advertise their products as being biodegradable or compostable without any scientific evidence to support these claims.
Whenever feasible, it is advised to use reusable cups. Bringing your own insulated container or utilizing a coffee shop’s ceramic mugs can greatly reduce waste. However, it should be noted that even reusable cups have an impact on the environment as they require production and hot water for cleaning between uses. While reusable cups are still preferred, it is not necessary to have an excessive amount of them. On average, a reusable cup must be used between 20 and 100 times to offset the emissions from its production, so having fewer cups in your possession will make it easier to justify purchasing a coffee.