After “Ditching the Paper Cup” and Choosing a Reusable Coffee Cup 5 Days a Week for a Year, You Will Save:
- 10 Pounds Fossil Fuel
- 65 Pounds Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- 4 Pounds Waste
- Plus… You’ll Also Save Some Trees!
*This post may include affiliate links. I only recommend eco-friendly products I know and love.
We Seem to Crave Disposable Coffee Cups
Drinking coffee out of a paper cup each morning became part of my ritual and for some reason, I couldn’t manage to kick the habit. Since I placed said cup in the recycling bin after ever use, I didn’t think much of the potential harm it was causing our planet. By throwing the cup into the recycling bin, it was “out of sight, out of mind”. Considering the fact that Americans consume over sixteen billion paper cups a year, I imagine I’m not the only one with this craving for convenience.
Similarly, the overflowing recycling bins I observe at coffee shops are also an indication that many people do not realize where the coffee cup actually ends up at the end of its 10 to 20 minute lifespan.
Paper Coffee Cups are Not Recyclable
Standard paper coffee cups contain a plastic lining consisting of polyethylene (a “necessary evil” so that the paper cup doesn’t turn to mush). Due to the cup being made out of both plastic and paper, the recycling marketplace has to pay the cost of separating two very different recycling streams. This is hard to accomplish in such a thin, lightweight package. In order for material to be recycled, there needs to be a market willing to pay for its extraction – and there simply isn’t one for the standard paper coffee cup.
In addition to the problems associated with actually recycling it, the paper coffee cup is created using raw, virgin paper which by law can not contain even a trace of recycled content for consumer safety reasons. This is stipulated by the US Food and Drug Administration [FDA].
In the San Francisco Bay Area (usually “an exception to the rule” when it comes to environmental management, consumers are allowed to dispose of paper coffee cups in the municipal composting stream (yes, even the plastic-coated ones). Even though plastic removal processes are implemented throughout the composting process, some studies have recently demonstrated that small pieces of plastic (microplastics) remain in the final product, which is then applied to nearby crops.
The question you should ask yourself: Is the continued use of a daily disposable paper cup worth the continued magnification of plastic in our food chain simply because it is handled through the composting process?
What about Coffee Cups Labeled “Fully Compostable”?
Specialty “fully compostable” paper cups contain a lining of PLA (polylactic acid – usually derived from renewable resources such as corn starch as an alternative to conventional plastic lining). In addition to the energy required to create another single-use product, most of the commercially-labelled compostable products require a municipal or large-scale composting system (capable of achieving higher temperatures) to actually break down. Since many people don’t have access to this type of composting system, the cups end up in the trash anyway (and likely don’t break down any faster than their standard counterparts).
What about the Energy Required to Create the Reusable Coffee Cup?
Most reusable coffee cups are designed to last 3,000 uses, with an estimated break-even point of 24 uses (i.e. the energy necessary to create your reusable coffee mug equals the energy needed to create 24 paper coffee cups). This means each reusable coffee cup could theoretically replace 2,976 paper coffee cups in a lifetime of use! If you’re shopping for a new one, choose eco-friendly coffee cups made from ceramic, glass, or stainless steel. [My ultimate favorite is the glass KeepCup brew*]
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