The Coffee Cup

September 23, 2020

Its Coffee week. The worldwide favourite, second to water.

In the UK it is estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups are disposed to landfill each year. This number was based on a 2011 estimate and current predictions go as high as 5 billion. To make the plastic cups heat and leakproof a Plastic lining is used. This plastic lining makes recycling of the cup hard, with only the cups disposed of in the big stores getting recycled. Even this is questionable, as I am well aware from working for a large corporation the burden of this recycling scheme will fall on an employee (probably at the end of a long hard shift) where the thought of digging through bins is far outweighed by bed.

How bad are these cups?

A paper from the VTT Technical Research Centre has estimated the carbon footprint for a standard Coffee. Packaging generally represents 5% of the total footprint, 80% growing and processing of the ingredients and 15% by transport.

The Total CO2e (a measure of the green house gas emissions) is 8.1g for a non-recycled standard paper cup and lid. A plastic reusable cup is around 20 times this value. Therefore to make your plastic reusable cup worthwhile, you need to use it! A steel made reusable cup needs to be used 130 times…you need to really use it!

The Math:

8.1gCO2e × 5 billion = 40.5 thousand tonnes CO2e
If all the cups were made with a plant lining and recycled this number would decrease to 14 thousand tonnes. A saving equivalent as 28,000 people flying to new York from London. Big.

The bottom line:

  • If you buy a re-useable cup, use it.
  • Recyclable cups really do help. Look for biodegradable or non-plastic lined cups.

Useless message:

  • A brew and a rich tea still wins for me. Every time.


House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee “Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups”

Huhtamaki report: “Taking a closer look at paper cups for coffee” via VTT Technical Research Centre

by Ben Richardson

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