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Updated: Apr 3, 2022

Single-use coffee cups, their environmental impact & sustainable alternatives

As our lives are speeding up and our schedules are becoming more hectic, more and more of us rely on takeaway for our morning dose of caffeine. You may not think too much about the environmental impact of the morning cup of coffee you take to-go. However, the packaging this hot drink comes in – single-use coffee cups – is a surprising environmental threat many of us don’t know about.

Collectively, we use 16 billion single-use coffee cups every year. Although companies are increasingly turning away from Styrofoam cups, opting to use paper single-use coffee cups instead, even those add up to a lot of environmental damage.

The environmental impact of manufacturing single-use coffee cups

Let’s take a closer look at the resources it takes to produce the 16 billion single-use coffee cups we consume every year. Altogether, this adds up to 6.5 million trees cut down, 4 billion gallons of wasted water and enough energy to power 54,000 homes for a year!

If you’re having a coffee to-go every workday, you’re adding a lot to your overall environmental footprint just by using single-use coffee cups rather than more sustainable alternatives with a lower environmental impact.

Single-use coffee cups are rarely recycled

To make the paper cup waterproof, as well as aiding with retaining heat, manufacturers add a layer of polyethylene plastic to the inside of the cup. While this layer serves its purpose, it also makes the cup very difficult to recycle.

Although some coffee shops offer collection services, to take these cups to recycling facilities which can separate the two layers, most takeaway coffee cups end up in general waste anyway. Additionally, the need to separate the two layers makes the recycling process more energy-intensive, increasing its carbon footprint. It is also expensive, which means that sometimes, even cups sorted for recycling end up in the landfill – because recycling facilities are still businesses, after all.

You may also be participating in something called ‘wishful recycling’ – throwing a single-use coffee cup with a layer of polyethylene into the paper recycling bin, in the hopes that it will somehow get recycled, nevertheless. While this may make us feel a little better about our own environmental impact, in reality, this is much worse than throwing the cup in general recycling. If the cup is not sorted out before the materials are recycled, it can contaminate the whole batch of paper with plastic, making it unrecyclable.

Coffee with a side of microplastics

The polypropylene layer in your single-use coffee cup doesn’t just make it difficult to recycle – recent studies also show that the plastic layer is likely leaching microscopic plastic particles (microplastics) into your cuppa.

Although many of the effects of microplastics on human health remain to be researched, you can likely imagine that polypropylene doesn’t sound like a part of a healthy diet.

Coffee cup lids

It’s not just the cup itself that has an impact on the environment – we also need to think about the lid. These are typically made from polypropylene or polystyrene. While polypropylene can technically be recycled, it’s often too costly to be profitable, which results in the material being sent to landfill instead. Polystyrene, on the other hand, can’t even be recycled to begin with.

Additionally, some brands such as Starbucks may be curbing plastic straws, while swapping them for sippy cup lids. Although Starbucks may be labelling this change an ‘environmental milestone’, critics were quick to point out that this is nothing but greenwashing, as the new sippy cups add more plastic to the packaging than a straw would!

Why the paper sleeve?

You may also notice that many coffee shops use paper sleeves for the single-use coffee cups, as a way to make cups more comfortable to hold. In fact, these sleeves were introduced as a more sustainable alternative to shops using two cups for one drink for better insulation.

Even though this sleeve is often made with recycled content, and are one of the less harmful parts of single-use coffee cups, they still add to the environmental impact as they consume resources and produce waste.

How to reduce your impact?

Picking up some new, easy habits when it comes to having your morning coffee can significantly reduce your environmental impact.

Here are some of the things you may want to do:

1.Invest in a reusable cup

Nowadays, there are plenty of sustainable alternatives to single-use coffee cups to choose from. These will help reduce the amount of waste you’re sending to landfill, as well as the amount of resources needed to produce the cup.

2. Skip the accessories

When you can’t avoid buying coffee in a single-use cup, avoid the lids, straws and sleeves. While the cup itself is still adding to your environmental impact, you’re eliminating the impact of accessories.

3. Press for plastic bans

Lastly, it’s important to support any single-use plastic bans on the governmental level, which would help reduce not just your impact, but the impact of humanity as a whole.

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