Pros and Cons of Paper Cups – Facts I bet you didn’t know

The pros of paper cups are that they break down quicker than plastic, they are affordable, come in a range of colors, can be recycled, are light, cheap, can hold hot and cold liquids and won’t break when you drop them. The cons of paper cups are that they can have a thin plastic coating which needs a specialty recycling facility, are single use and are often packaged in plastic.

Pros and Cons of Paper Cups

I decided to investigate the pros and cons of using paper cups.  If you are like me and trying to avoid single use plastics, moving to paper can seem like a greener alternative. The truth is more complex. Here are the top pros and cons of paper cups.

ProsCons
They will break down quicker than plastic cupsPlastic coating inside needs a specialty recycling process
Affordable compared to reusable cupsCreate more waste than a reusable cup
Come in a range of colorsCan be more expensive than plastic
Can be recycled at specialised facilities Most cups end up in landfill and not recycled
Range of sizesNot available in all stores
Light to carryPaper is less sustainable than bamboo
SanitaryTrees are cut down to make paper cups
Can hold hot and cold liquidsPlastic from inside coating can pollute oceans
ConvenientMost cups contain a plastic internal coating making them non-biodegradable 
Won’t break if dropped Cups are packaged in plastic creating more waste
Easy to bring to bring to partiesUsually single use
Paper cups can have a plastic lining that makes them difficult to recycle.

Both paper and plastic cups are often thrown away after one use so for environmental sustainability a reusable cup that is used multiple times is the best way to go.  Let’s delve deeper and find out what is really behind the paper vs plastic cup debate.

Paper vs. Plastic Cups

There are lots of places where disposable cups have become the norm. Near the water cooler at work, at kids birthday parties (or adult birthday parties), or even while on vacation.  Any time people want to avoid doing dishes, plastic or paper cups, cutlery or plates become the go to choice. But can we really afford to choose paper or plastic because we don’t want to wash up?

Research that I did stated that in 2007, a million tons of paper was created for paper cups and plates, virtually all of which would have been thrown away after a single use.  In the same year 800,000 tons of plastic cups and plates were create, again with most being thrown in the garbage. So let’s start by looking at paper & plastic cups more closely and explore the factors we need to consider.

Benefits of paper cups

If there are any benefits to the use of paper or plastic cups, it is that they can be made from recycled materials.  Knowing that they are already using up a discarded product is a good start, however most of these will then head to landfill after being used as they are both difficult to recycle.

Cons of paper cups

Even if the cups are made from a recycled materials they generally can’t be recycled after this.  Both paper and plastic cups are difficult to recycle. Paper cups are plastic lined so they don’t soak in the liquid you put in them.

Very few recycling facilities can handle this type of recycling process which requires separating out or breaking down the paper and plastic.

What to use instead of paper cups?

If you have decided that you know enough now to choose something other than a paper cup let’s explore the best options.

  • A stainless steel cup – Beast tumbler insulated coffee cup
  • A glass cup such as KeepCup or Joco
  • A hard plastic reusable cup such as KeepCup

Have a look at the options and decide what is best for you.  The key points for sustainability is to keep using your reusable cup for as long as possible. For a reusable cup to be an improvement over a disposable one you need to use them at least 20 times.

An Innovative Idea – a quick story

A few weeks ago I was out with my family at the opening of a new playground in our community.  The flyer had stated that there would be coffee available, which really convinced me it was a good idea for us to attend (selfish intentions I know).  So after we settled in, found a spot to park the pram and the kids had found the spot they wanted to play, I headed over to the coffee station.

I had recently broken my reusable coffee cup (clumsily knocking it off a bench onto a hard floor) so didn’t have anything with me.

Feeling guilty that I might need to use a throwaway cup, I was delighted to see that the baristas’ were using good old ceramic coffee cups.  It looked like they had raided the cupboards of council and grabbed every cup they could find.

After we were done the cups went into a big bucket which they would later be washed.

What a fantastic solution to the problem of reusable cups. Yes there was washing to do after, however without any plastic or paper waste being created, it is a small sacrifice.  It’s great to see a local council leading the way with waste reduction.

Do paper cups biodegrade?

One of the most commonly used paper cups is the takeaway coffee cup. See my previous article here on the environmental impact of disposable coffee cups.  We use billions of these paper cups each year to grab a coffee on the go.

The question is what happens to them next? Recycling these cups is not that simple.  A paper cup is lined with plastic which makes them waterproof. That means your coffee won’t soak through but that makes them really tricky to recycle.

You will see cups that are labelled biodegradable but my research shows that most of the time you can’t simply throw them in your compost and expect them to break down.

Biodegradable coffee cups generally need to be heated to quite a high temperature achieved in industrial composting conditions. The problem is these cups are still plastic lined so the composting process is tricky.

Specialized recycling facilities are needed to deal with most biodegradable cups.  To be sure that you don’t contaminate the recycling of other rubbish, the best way to deal with them is to only dispose of these in a specialized biodegradable cup “bin”.  Some councils in Australia have these facilities or you will see these bins popping up in some cafes and workplaces.

Unless you are sure that the recycling facility can handle these biodegradable cups it’s best not to thrown them in with your general recycling.  Bins that are labelled to accept paper cups should be linked with recycling facilities that can handle this type of waste.

How long does it take for cups to decompose?

A paper cup will take 20-30 years to break down in a landfill.

Paper cups are plastic lined, that’s how they stay waterproof and can hold liquid.  This affects how and if the paper itself breaks down. It generally isn’t as simple as taking your paper cup and throwing it in your compost.  The plastic lining won’t break down so you will have some residual plastic left over.

Some cups are labelled as biodegradable but that most will need an industrial process to break down.  To separate and break down the plastic component it needs to be heated which can’t generally be achieved in a natural environment.  These cups will need to be sent to a recycling facility that can handle this product and therefore it can technically biodegrade.  If thrown in your compost, it is likely that the plastic component of your paper cup will still exist for a long time.

Is polystyrene (foam) better than paper?

My initial response to this question would that paper would be better of course.  When I looked into this question, the answer is actually more complex. There are different factors to consider for each.  So here are the key facts about polystyrene, most of this isn’t great news.

  • Polystyrene is made from natural gas and petroleum which are non-renewable.
  • The process of manufacturing polystyrene cups uses less resources than paper cups (a positive, yay!)
  • Polystyrene takes at least 500 years to break down, compared to 20 years for paper cups (not so great).
  • Polystyrene may release chemicals into the environment or they might be eaten by wildlife.

At the end of the day, neither option is particularly environmentally friendly.  Let’s move on from comparing these products to looking into the best option that we can use instead.

Check out my previous article:

What size reusable coffee cup?

Pros and Cons of Paper Cups – FAQ

What are the disadvantages of paper cups?

The disadvantages of paper cups are that they are difficult to recycle because they often contain a plastic lining. Other disadvantages of paper cups are that they are single use, create waste, can come in plastic wrapping that can’t be recycled and can end up in landfill. Paper cups are usually made from trees which are cut down and shredded which is a major disadvantage of paper cups.

What are the benefits of paper cups?

Paper cups are light weight, will not break when you drop them and can be made from sustainable wood sources like bamboo. If paper cups are recycled correctly they offer benefits over polystyrene cups which will not break down for 500 years. Paper cups benefit the environment as the paper will break down quicker than plastic or Styrofoam.

Why are paper cups bad for the environment?

Paper cups are bad for the environment if they are made from trees which are not sustainably grown. The environment suffers when paper cups are not recycled properly or thrown away as they create more waste. They can be difficult to recycle because of their plastic lining which makes them bad for the environment as they need specialized facilities to deal with the waste.

Pros and Cons of Paper Cups – Summary

Paper cup pros include their low price, light weight and the fact they will break down quicker than plastic. Compared to a reusable option however they do not stack up and there may be better choices for the environment.

Paper cups are a quick use, throw away option that can be replaced with a reusable choice easily. Kids parties are a place where reusable cups are a great swap and a good quality bamboo cup can be a great choice.