Your Paper Coffee Cup Is an Eco-Nightmare

It may be shocking to learn that the paper coffee cups you use every morning on the way to work actually cannot really be recycled.

Yes, they are mostly made out of paper. Yes, the paper is recyclable. Yes, there is probably a little recycle symbol on your cup. But these cups also have a tightly adhered plastic lining, and that makes the whole thing un-reusable in the majority of major recycling facilities. While these cups can be recycled, they require specialized recycling processes they rarely get. And most people simply don’t know this, so we keep using them by the millions, making paper cups an eco-nightmare.

A lot of people consider paper cups to be a step up from foam to-go cups. The ban on foam single-use cups is increasingly picking up steam, which is a great thing. Polystyrene foam is no good for anyone. But, so many of us falsely associate single-use paper cups as the greener option. It is simply not true.

Foam cups are made from byproducts of petroleum and natural gas and take over a million years to decompose in a landfill. They contain toxic chemicals that can leach into food when heated. It takes just under 5,000 gallons of water to make 10,000 foam cups and annual production releases 680 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other hand, it takes twenty million trees annually to create those ubiquitous paper to-go cups. Then, they are lined with polyethylene, a plastic derived from fossil fuels which contains chemicals that prove harmful in waterways. It also takes just under a whopping 9,000 gallons of water to create 10,000 paper cups and their respective cardboard sleeves, and annual production of the cups alone releases 500 pounds of greenhouse gases. When you add in the production of cardboard sleeves, the combined greenhouse gas emissions exceed those of foam cousins.

According to a 2006 study conducted in the Netherlands, paper cups were less polluting in 5 out of 10 given categories, and polystyrene was less polluting in the other 5. Even though we perceive one cup to be less sustainable than the other, they are cut from the same, planet-polluting cloth.

It takes 20 years for your daily to-go paper coffee cup to decompose in a landfill. Think of how many cups Americans consume each day, and how that adds up, year after year. Sure, some companies manufacture biodegradable, corn-based linings to help their cups have less of an environmental impact, but the vast majority of national chains do not offer these. Plus, it still doesn’t solve the problem of recycling. Virgin paper is still being wasted in mass quantities.

Add to that the cardboard sleeves these cups come with, because they are usually too hot to hold. The sleeves often do not get recycled either because consumers often toss them into the trash along with the cups. It’s a mess of a system.

So what is the better choice? While there are eco-cups out there that adhere the plastic lining loosely so as to be more easily processed at a recycling facility, you can’t count on every coffee shop to care that much. The best choice is to bring your own mug with you. That single-handedly has the most innocuous effect on climate change, water pollution and human health. And it’s not that hard. Attach a mug or thermos via carabiner to your satchel or backpack and never leave home without it. It’s a small inconvenience when compared to how much pollution you are single-handedly thwarting.

Do you always bring your own to-go cup for coffee or tea? Why or why not?

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