The climate impact of a coffee cup

A disposable paper coffee cup and stirrer
Recycling paper cups can reduce their carbon footprint by 54 per cent
Paper coffee cups could have a lower carbon footprint than reusable cups over the course of their life, according to research by food packaging manufacturer Huhtamaki.

A life-cycle analysis (LCA) of paper cups, as compared to ceramic, plastic and steel cups, was commissioned by Huhtamaki and the Finnish paperboard producer Stora Enso over the course of 2018-2019.

The LCA is used to assess the possible environmental impact of a product across its entire life, from cradle to grave - looking at the production process, the materials used and the method of reuse, recycling or disposal.

The study was carried out by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and focuses on two key coffee-consumption scenarios: a cafe scenario, comparing paper cups with traditional ceramic cups, and an on-the-go scenario, where takeaway paper cups were compared with reusable plastic and steel cups.

According to the study, a ceramic cup in a cafe needs to be reused around 350 times before it can boast a smaller carbon footprint than a single-use paper cup. This is largely affected by how efficiently the ceramic cup is washed, with the climate impact of the cup increasing if the cup is washed less efficiently - for instance using a lot of water and energy or needing to wash it multiple times. Over 90 per cent of the life cycle emissions of a reusable cup come from the washing process as opposed to the extraction of raw materials or manufacturing.

A similar picture appears when comparing paper cups with reusable steel cups, which would need to be reused a minimum 130 times for its life-cycle impacts to ‘break even’ with the impacts of paper cups. Reusable plastic cups would apparently need to be used 20-36 times to compare with paper.

In addition, the LCA compared the carbon footprint of three different types of paper cup: one with a standard polyethylene (PE) coating, one with a plant-based PE coating and one certified compostable cup. The raw materials, cup production process, transport and end-of-life destination was compared for the three types, with results suggesting that the cup with the plant-based PE coating performed the best, producing 10.2 grams of CO2 equivalent per cup, compared to around 10.4 grams for the standard PE and just over 13 grams for the compostable cup.

The study states: ‘Compostable cups are a good option when the cups actually get composted. If it is not possible to ensure composting, PE coated cups have a lower carbon footprint.’

Interestingly, the study claims that looking at the carbon footprint of a takeaway coffee, the paper cup with lid contributes only nine per cent of the total climate impact, while 14 per cent of the impact comes from the coffee production and a massive 73 per cent comes from milk production - so one possible way to reduce the environmental impact of your coffee is to start drinking it black or using a non-dairy milk.

Baled coffee cup waste
Recycling is key

Extending the life of any type of cup is crucial to reducing its carbon footprint, and with single-use paper cups, this means keeping them out of landfill or incineration and sending them for recycling. According to the study, recycling a traditional paper cup reduces its carbon footprint by 54 per cent - and the fibre in the cup can be recycled up to seven times. The study also suggests that if a paper cup is recycled it will always have a lower carbon footprint than a ceramic cup used in a cafe.

However, recycling is still sometimes easier said than done, with access to coffee cup recycling points often limited in areas like shopping centres where takeaway cups are used. The good news is that the amount of coffee cup recycling facilities in the UK is growing, with waste management company Veolia predicting it will recycle 120 million cups in 2019 and DS Smith claiming it has the capacity to recycle all the UK’s waste coffee cups at one paper mill in Kent.

The problem of getting paper cups to those recycling facilities is also being tackled. According to the Paper Cup Recycling and Recovery Group (PCRRG), there are now more than 4,500 paper cup recycling points available in the UK, such as bring banks and in-store collection points. In Leeds, environmental behaviour change charity Hubbub has been exploring ways to improve on-the-go recycling for food and drink packaging with its ‘Leeds By Example’ project. In the first six months after its launch in October 2018, 600,000 coffee cups were collected for recycling in and around Leeds city centre through dedicated drop-off points and recycling reward machines that offered vouchers in return for used paper cups.

The success of Leeds By Example, which also focused on plastic bottles, drinks cans and other common on-the-go items, means similar projects will now be rolled out in Swansea and Edinburgh. In addition, Hubbub has launched ‘The Cup Fund’ in partnership with Starbucks, which will offer funding of between £50,000 and £100,000 to projects aiming to improve paper cup collection and recycling.

New partnership to help businesses recycle cups

Recycling company First Mile announced yesterday (1 July) that it was partnering with Huhtamaki to improve coffee cup recycling by businesses.

First Mile will be collecting paper cups from coffee chains, restaurants and other businesses in London and Birmingham that use Huhtamaki’s disposable cups. The recycling company has also recently launched a new compostable packaging service, meaning that compostable cups produced by Huhtamaki will be converted into fertiliser - provided they make it into the recycling system.

First Mile founder and CEO, Bruce Bratley, commented: “With a growing awareness of recycling and sustainability, the PCRRG reports that paper cup recycling rates have increased from an estimated 1 in every 400 to 1 in every 25 in just two years and we’re keen to increase this further through the work we do. This partnership is a great collaboration, pairing Huhtamaki’s objective of driving long-term sustainability, with First Mile’s innovative approach to making recycling easy for businesses.”

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