Biodegradable Coffee Cups: A Solution Or A Pacifier?

by Owner on July 19, 2012

Over fifty percent of American adults drink coffee every day. That’s over 400 million cups of java! With many of those consumed in one of 24,000 American coffee shops,our nation’s coffee addiction sends nearly twenty million disposable paper cups to landfills every year. So, are biodegradable coffee cups a solution?

The Problem With Disposable Cups

As I look around the local coffee shop where I am enjoying a cup of Organic Fair Trade Ethiopian Finjal, I am the only one out of twenty-one “dine-in” customers sipping from a ceramic re-usable mug. I quickly count eleven plastic cold-cups and twelve paper cups with plastic lids on the tables around me.

Okay, so the plastic and paper are recyclable, right?

It’s not quite as simple as that. While you might imagine that the paper cups are easily recyclable, their polythylene coating makes them tricky. Most recycling facilities do not have the capability to separate the materials in an economically feasible fashion.

Not only that, but because of FDA standards, the cups are made from virgin lumber, which is generally not sustainably harvested. Also, these cups produce greenhouse gases both in their production and in the landfills- toxic to the earth both at the beginning and end of their lives.

In addition to the ecological detriments, the petroleum resin used to insulate the paper can leach into our heated beverages, making them dangerous to our health.

Surprisingly, the plastic cups are actually the more eco-friendly choice. Most cold cups, such as Starbucks clear plastic cup, are made from #5 plastic, which is increasingly accepted by curbside programs.

But how many people actually take their cups home and recycle them? In the ten minutes I have been sitting here thus far, I’ve seen twelve cups go into the trash by the door.

Are Biodegradable Cups The Solution?

There are currently a number of coffee cups on the market that claim to be 100% biodegradable and compostable, such as Ecotainer’s® Hot Cups. They are indeed compostable and biodegradable, but only under very specific conditions, which can only be provided by commercial composting facilities. This “eco-friendly” option is not going to break down in your regular land fill or compost pile.

Tully’s Coffee is the first major coffee retailer to adopt the biodegradable cup, which uses corn plastic instead of petroleum plastic to insulate the paper container. They have also instituted an in-house program that collects the cups and transports them to a commercial facility for composting.

While Tully’s efforts put a tiny dent in the larger problem, it still doesn’t address the biodegradable (which seems to be kind of a stretch) cups that are disposed of at home or outside the company’s own collection program. Nor does it really make a significant impact on the rising number of disposable coffee cups being thrown away all over the country and the world.

With over 11,000 locations in the U.S. alone, Starbucks has been researching a more eco-friendly biodegradable cup for the last twelve years. While they were able to create a cup that uses 10% recycled post-consumer paper, saving nearly 675,000 trees in the first year, they still have not come up with an option that is easily recycled by the average consumer.

Refill Me Up!

While reusable plastic, stainless steel, and ceramic mugs have a higher initial environmental impact in their production that their disposable counterparts, their real benefit comes in their longevity. While disposable cups, even the biodegradable ones, are designed for a single use, the reusable travel mug can be refilled and washed up to 3,000 times! Not only that, but most of these mugs can be recycled at the end of their useful lives.

As an added incentive to refill your cup, many coffee shops and other beverage retailers offer a discount to customers who bring their own cup. It’s ten cents off at Starbucks, which is no skin off their teeth since a paper cup costs them about that much.

So, while many consumers will allow the biodegradable, compostable paper coffee cup to pacify their conscience, the reusable ceramic or stainless steel (even BPA-free plastic) reusable cup is the only real solution to an ecological, health-friendly coffee fix on the go.


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