Studies Reveal Paper Cups Cause the Lowest Carbon Footprint

Paper cups will steal the show as long as coffee, tea, and milk continue to rank as the most preferred beverages in the world. Even as folks pursue eco-friendly alternatives, the cups are miles ahead as the stellar sustainable solution.

European lawmakers have ready measures in place to curb the environmental threat from plastics. Plenty of plastic items, including beverage cups and straws, will find their dominance whittled down in a few years to come.

The University of Georgia engineer, Jenna Jambeck, led a study to analyse the impact of plastic pollution from 192 countries bordering oceans. In their findings, the nations accounted for up to 12.7 million tones of plastic flowing into the oceans.

All these moves in the industry put more limelight on paper cups. Of course, they are the only plastic-alternative whose demand is on an upward trend.

We have witnessed many studies casting aspersions on paper cups. Some are wars waged by plastic proponents, but it doesn’t mean the cups are the saints in the industry. They possess some flaws that we will highlight later.

Paper cups are biodegradable and originate from certified woodlands, yet minimal research has focused on their production process.

What impact does paper cups manufacturing and use pose to the environment?

What is Paper Cups Carbon Footprint? 

An independent institute conducted a life cycle analysis on a variety of coffee cups to determine the total carbon footprint.

According to the study, paper cups cause the lowest carbon footprint. Also, recycling paper cups halves the carbon impact.

Overall, paper cups are safe, hygienic and offer food safety. Compared to several food packaging varieties, they pose the least carbon emissions threat.

Indeed, the beverages taken using the cups such as coffee and tea have a higher carbon impact. Out of the total footprint, the consumed beverage accounts for 96% of the carbon, while the cups are responsible for only 4% of the emissions.

The LCA study conducted by VTT Technical Research Institute in Finland between 2018-2019, focused on cafe coffee cups and takeaway cups.

VTT TRI matched cafe coffee cups vs ceramic cups and the take away paper cups against reusable steel and plastic cups.


Dishwashing Accounts for 90% of the Climatic Impact

It became clear washing efficiency is a significant factor influencing the climatic impact of cups. Washing ceramic cups causes 90% of the environmental impact.

Unlike paper cups, ceramic cups require cleaning after every use. If the whole process and life cycle of ceramic cups are part of the climatic equation, the results become depressing.

After summing up all the consequences of harvesting raw materials, production and washing efficiency, the outcome was astonishing.

You must reuse ceramic cups over 350 times to match the little carbon footprint of paper cups.

Still, paper cups came out on top after considering recycling. At least 80% of paper cups can get recycled, and they offers a better alternative for a cleaner climate and environment.

Also, washing is a must for ceramic cups. Despite its climatic impact, cleaning is a health requirement, and so it is mandatory.

Take Away Paper Cups Win Against Reusable Plastic Cups and Steel 

In the take-away coffee sphere, the paper cups comprised plastic lids. The lids secure the beverage from spilling and minimise burns or harm from the hot liquid.

As per the study, reusable plastic cups must be reused over 20 times to match the small paper cups’ climatic impact.

Not to forget, plastic cups impact must also take into account cleaning. So like ceramic cups, washing efficiency taints plastic cups’ sustainability.

Recycling paper cups, even when they contain a PE coating, raises the cut point to 36 times. That is, the number of times you must reuse a plastic cup to match the impact of recycled paper cups.

What about steel cups?

Steel cups have been in the market since time immemorial. While they don’t dominate cafes as much as paper cups, they were once predominant in our homes.

According to the VTT TRI study, steel cups must be reused for at least 130 times to rival the minimal carbon emissions from plastic lidded paper cups.

Is Recycling the Answer to Lowering the Carbon Footprint? 

In both cases, recycling emerges as a solution to paper cups’ carbon emissions. 100% recycling of PE coated cups cuts down the carbon emissions by a whopping 54%.

Besides lessening the carbon impact, recycling also helps to prevent waste from going to landfills.

However, a circular economy won’t come on a silver plate. All nations must implement adept recycling measures.

Despite setting recycling targets, Europe recycling rates have stagnated at 55%. 

As mentioned earlier, paper cups have some flaws. One major problem with the cups has been the thin film PE coating.

The coating comes bonded in many paper cups, hence it makes recycling difficult. A bunch of companies struggle to recycle PE coated paper cups as many recycling mills don’t accept them.

The cups are, however, recyclable under individual recycling machines. Other conventional recyclers manually remove the film coating before taking the cups to the plants.

If recycling counters the problem of the film coating, then it becomes the perfect answer to sustainability. Why? Quality paper fibre can get recycled up to seven times.

New Solutions to Further Reduce the Carbon Emissions Impact from Paper Cups 

As seen, PE coated paper cups are not the ultimate beverage packaging solution. Their problems in recycling and decomposing stain the image of paper cups.

Scyphus, an industry leader, has envisioned biodegradable, recyclable and renewable paper cups.

The paper cups comprise PEFC certified wood sources and contain a BLA film coating instead of the non-compostable PE film.

With BLA (bio-plastic) being a plastic sourced from organic corn starch, the cups can be decomposed or recycled with no hiccups.

Many plastic manufacturers have shifted to BLA plastic. Unlike ordinary plastics that cause a lot of carbon emissions in production, BLA is eco-friendly.

BLA coated paper cups, if not recycled, can be decomposed. Also, BLA plastic takes around three to six months to compost.

Learn more about biodegradable paper cups here.


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