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Would you like plastic with your coffee?

June 19, 2008

The Basic Problem with Coffee Cups

What do most coffee drinkers think about when drinking a cup of coffee? For the organizers of Sustainability is Sexy, it’s the environmental impact of their coffee cup. These are a few of the environmental problems with using disposable paper coffee cups:

• Disposable paper coffee cups aren’t made from recycled paper. Instead, most cups are manufactured using 100% bleached virgin paperboard. Why don’t manufacturers use recycled paper? Firstly, FDA regulations are strict when it comes to allowing recycled paper pulp to be in direct contact with food and beverages. Secondly, recycled paper isn’t strong enough to hold a liquid. In the late 1990’s, Starbucks experimented with a variety of coffee cups made with recycled paper. Unfortunately, the cups were too often flimsy and leaked their contents. To date, Starbucks has begun to use cups made from 10% post-consumer materials, while the remaining 90% of the cup is composed of new paper.
• During the manufacturing process, cups are laminated with a plastic resin called polyethylene. This helps keep beverages warm and prevents the paper from absorbing liquids and leaking. The plastic also prevents the cup from being recycled. Every paper cup that is manufactured and coated with plastic resin ends up in a landfill. Once in a landfill, the paper will begin to decompose. This process releases methane, a greenhouse gas with 23 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.
• The process involved with manufacturing paper cups is extremely resource intensive. Manufacturing paper requires harvesting trees and using machines to turn the wood into wood chips. The chips are heavily washed to remove any dirt, and then mixed with more water and processed. The resulting paper pulp is dried and the fibers are pressed together to make paper. The entire process requires a substantial amount of water, energy… and a lot of trees.

How Many Cups Do We Use?

The environmental problems associated with paper cups are only accentuated by their wide-spread usage among coffee drinkers. Considering how big the coffee industry has become, it’s difficult to determine just how many disposable coffee cups get used annually. According to Rob Martin, the Vice President of Merchandising and Production for Tully’s Coffee, Americans’ consume more than 16 billion paper cups every year.

What’s the Actual Impact?

By any estimate, a lot of coffee cups are used and thrown away every year. When the amount of natural resources and waste that comes with wide-spread use is calculated, the numbers can be overwhelming. In 2006, it is estimated that paper cups accounted for 252 million pounds of garbage resting in landfills. Paper cup use in 2006 also accounted for 4 billion gallons of water wasted, 6.5 million trees cut down, and 4,884 billion BTU’s of energy used.

The table below calculates the amount of wood consumed, number of trees cut down, BTU’s of energy used, how many homes that energy could have powered for one year, the amount of water consumed, how many Olympic-sized swimming pools that water could fill, and the amount of solid waste created:

Are Alternatives Really Any Better?

To stem the tide of excessive waste, many coffee houses have begun to encourage consumers to use their own reusable mugs. Reusable coffee cups have taken many forms; from ceramic and glass “in-store” cups to stainless steel and plastic commuter mugs. The true benefit of reusable cups derives from how many times it can be used.

Generally, manufacturing reusable cups creates a bigger environmental impact than that of paper cups. However, that impact lessens over time as the reusable cup is reused. Each reusable cup has a “breaking point” – the point at which it becomes more environmentally friendly than a paper cup. A study conducted by Sustainability Engineer Pablo Päster shows that after 24 uses, a stainless steel mug breaks even with paper cups.[7] Considering that most reusable mugs are designed to be used for 3000 uses, the positive environmental impact of reusables can be enormous.

In 2003, Starbucks found that coffee drinkers used reusable cups an estimated 13.5 million times, which kept 586,800 pounds of garbage out of landfills.[8] In 2006, this number increased to 17 million and an estimated 674,000 pounds of avoided waste.[9]

Reusable mugs do more than just affect the environment positively – they also save both coffee houses and coffee drinkers money. A study done in 2000 found that Starbucks could save more than $1 million per year in packaging costs by implementing reusable cups. “With as few as 3 or 4 reusable cups used per hour, the Starbucks Green Team estimated that an average Starbucks store could save hundreds of dollars per year in paper cup costs alone. Furthermore, the test stores reported anecdotal evidence indicating an increase in customer satisfaction and associated purchases as a result of the reusables option.”

The Verdict?

Disposable paper cups affect the environment negatively. Besides creating a steady supply of waste, disposable cups also demand a large consumption of natural resources and emit high levels of climate-changing green house gases. Because so many disposable paper cups are used throughout the world, the actual environmental affect can be staggering. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Reusable coffee cups reduce the impact disposable cups have on our environment. Waste, natural resources, and damage done by green house gases are all decreased by reusable cups after only 24 uses. As an added bonus, reusable cups help cut supply costs for coffee houses. That discount is often passed on to consumers – saving everyone money.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Nithya Subramanian permalink
    August 6, 2008 6:12 am

    Very interesting and informative article which makes one think twice before picking up a paper cup. Is there a way by which you can give an equation to how many paper cups amounts to one tree. I plan to have an awareness session on using paper in general and this would be more easily understood by most of us.

  2. August 6, 2008 3:57 pm

    hi there – interesting question to which i don’t have a ready answer, but i’ll try to see if i can find a way to figure it out. it sure would be a great analogy!

  3. August 6, 2008 4:04 pm

    Some US stats that we have found are in 2006 there were 951,579 TONNES of wood consumed for coffee cups which equates to 6,568,421 trees cut down.
    At Starbucks alone in 2006 they consumed 136,789 TONNES of wood or 780,000 trees were cut down to make the coffee cups that were thrown away. Due to the coffee cups being lined with plastic to make them hold liquid they are not recyclable. In 2006 in the US coffee cups alone created 253 million lbs of solid waste.
    These stats found at
    Use a reusable travel mug. 🙂

  4. August 7, 2008 6:03 am

    thanks caroleann! so to extrapolate that into cups/tree, from the sustainability is sexy website:

    16 billion cups = 6,588,421 trees


    2,429 cups = 1 tree

    that is, of course, so long as my grade 9 algebra hasn’t failed me … and please! feel free to check my math!!

    this, to me, seems like an art project just waiting to happen

  5. shawn Taylkor permalink
    October 8, 2009 5:39 pm

    This is all well and good… but where did you find the evidence to support all of this? I would love to use this information in my paper but I can’t seem to find a credible resource anywhere on the site!

  6. October 8, 2009 6:47 pm

    hi shawn – i thought we had put a link to the source in the post but it seems not. sorry! i’ve fixed that now, but this came from and their figures are extrapolated from the Environmental Defense Fund’s Paper Calculator Good luck with your paper!

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