Rethinking the single-use coffee cup

February 2, 2022

It’s probably not plastic, so you might think that to-go single-use coffee cup you picked up in the drive-thru is recyclable — but paper on its own can’t hold liquid, so they’re often coated with polyethylene.

What’s polyethylene? You guessed it. A plastic.

Every year, billions of single-use cups are thrown into landfills — according to a University of British Columbia study, it’s around 52 billion disposable paper coffee cups that are tossed in just a 12-month period. Only about 1 in 400 cups is recycled.

Let’s look at the impact of a single-use cup, starting with their creation. Another UBC study showed that it takes 9000-12000 kilograms of steam, 960-1000 kWh electrical power and 50 meters cubed of cooling water to convert one metric ton of raw materials into single-use cups. That’s a ton of power required to produce something we discard so casually.

And that’s a whole other conundrum — discarding these single-use coffee cups. The polyethylene layer is difficult to remove from the paper layer, so recycling the cup is a challenge. Then, because there’s no federal consistency in North America, each city has its own recycling processes often coupled with outdated procedures, the cups are commonly not accepted in the blue or red box.

Some have opted to impose their own solutions to the single-use cup problem — Vancouver has a city bylaw with a .25 cent fee for each single-use cup handed out. The Netherlands has banned all single-use plastic for sit-down dining. The entire EU has a ban on single-use plastics (but paper coffee cups are not included), and Korea has a ban starting in 2027 of all disposable straws and cups.

Even Starbucks, challenged by Greenpeace to reduce their single-use waste, has launched a reusable cup program (in place for 2023) across North America, allowing customers to use their own reusables and rental cups for all in-house, mobile and drive-thru orders.

Will switching to reusable cups save the world? The measurable impact from each individual’s use might be small, but it can have mighty trickle down effects if we all switch.

Do an assessment of your own single-use cup use. How many times a week do you hit the drive-thru for a morning coffee or afternoon iced tea? Once you have a number, challenge yourself to cut it in half — maybe that means you pick up a reusable cup (a Fill it Forward option is coming soon!) or start filling a thermos mug at home before you head out the door.

We challenge you — and we’re going to take the challenge too! Together, we can eliminate the billions of single-use cups that end up in landfills.