It’s a bit more complicated. Last year we used 264 billion paper cups according to Imarc. This translates to a number of trees, an amount of water, a quantity of energy and a number for the miles transport needed. No doubt, it’s not for free from a climate point of view. This fact has gotten quite a lot of attention during the last few years, maybe with a peak two years ago, when consumers questioned the use of single-use cups.
Another perspective on this comes from a recent, 2019, LCA study carried out by VTT or Technical Research Centre of Finland. The study shows that the paper-based coffee cup is performing quite well for carbon dioxide compared to the alternatives. The comparison was to reusable cups in different materials. But this footprint can be significantly improved by properly recycling the emptied latte cup.
The LCA consequences will of course depend on how the cup is made up, the amount and type of plastic used for lining and also what recycling facilities are available. We are using quite a few of these single use cups and recycling and reusing material is key to a circular economy. The average cup is not easily recycled, many plants have a challenge to separate the plastic from the paper.
This recycling situation is improving. Last year Stora Enso announced that they could successfully recycle used paper cups at their plant in both Sweden and in Belgium. They declared that used paper cups could be used as valuable raw material and be recycled into white-lined chipboard (WLC).
Recycling facilities can be expanded in many ways. This is proved by the London based charity organisation Hubbub. Together with Starbucks they launched ‘The Cup Fund’ to support paper cup recycling in the UK. Enough money has been raised, by the voluntary 5p charge added to single use coffee cups, to build recycling facilities to handle 4 million cups yearly. Every little helps.
There are other solutions available. Ball, the leading supplier of beverage cans, is testing aluminium cups as an infinitely recyclable alternative to the single use cup. They started last year and now they will be used for serving beverages at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami during Superbowl. A stiff drink, or at least a sturdy cup.
Finally, it is important to remember that of that cup of latte only 4% of the climate impact comes from the single use cup. 96% still comes from what’s in the cup, the coffee and the milk. So, enjoy the latte and don’t forget to recycle the cup. And do finish it to minimise food waste and the climate effect of your brew.