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The High Environmental Cost of Paper Cups

Have you ever stopped to ponder the real impact of those seemingly harmless paper cups we use daily? But before we delve into the environmental consequences, let’s take a brief journey back in time to grasp the backstory.

In the beginning, everything centred around shared cups, kulhads, or glasses used for serving coffee, tea and other beverages. Then, plastic cups emerged, addressing concerns about hygiene and germ spread. Initially, for specific needs, they soon became a daily convenience due to their wash-free nature. However, the convenience came with unforeseen issues, especially with hot beverages. Those crinkly plastic cups also turned out to be very damaging from an environmental standpoint. This led to the rise of sturdy paper cups, seemingly a wiser choice as they are made from paper instead of fossil fuels. But the Reality is that paper cups are not as eco-friendly as you think.

Is it really a big problem?:- Annual paper cup usage in India itself is almost 23 billion cups (over 7% of global paper cup usage) and this number is growing rapidly year on year. Globally almost 6.5 million trees are cut down annually to make paper cups, indicating a significant toll on many vulnerable ecosystems. The production of paper cups & sleeves results in added emissions of over 2 billion kgs of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In addition, each 250 ml paper cup consumes almost a liter of water to produce adding to the stress on this scarce resource.

Also contrary to popular belief, paper cups aren’t solely made from paper. Most disposable paper cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic or wax or something else to make them waterproof. This coating renders paper cups difficult to recycle at most facilities. Less than 1% of paper recycling mills, in the USA can process plastic-coated cups, the number is significantly less in India. Consequently, the majority of these paper cups end up in landfills.

So what if they are in landfills, aren’t they biodegradable?:- Yes, but the plastic lining means that it takes many years to biodegrade in a landfill and this process is not efficient. In addition, the process of biodegradation adds further greenhouse gases to the environment.

But they are still safe to use right?:- Not 100% it seems. A recent study of 2023 concludes that paper Cups are more harmful and toxic than plastic cups for the environment. Another study from 2020 states that plastic lining for hot beverages is leading to microplastics being ingested during the use of these cups for longer periods, which may not be safe for health.

What can we do about it?:- Some offices require employees to use their own cups for their drinks, while others provide a hybrid choice. Paper cups remain a staple in all coffee and tea chains, both branded and unbranded. However, it’s worth noting that due to infrastructure limitations, a major coffee chain had to abandon its aim of creating 100% compostable and recyclable hot cups by 2022. (Source: Sustainability Report 2022).

What about plant-based cups?:- Innovators are working on alternative designs and materials. One promising innovation is the development of biodegradable or compostable cups made from plant-based materials like cornstarch or sugarcane. These cups are reported that they break down more easily in the environment, reducing their long-term impact. However, the usability and safety of these cups are yet to be determined.

What should we do?:- 

The primary challenge lies in the coatings, which we hope will be improved to become more environmentally friendly through ongoing innovations.

While we might see more facilities capable of separating and recycling cups in the future, there’s an important question to consider: if cup production requires a mix of recyclable and new materials, can we justify cutting down more trees? This is a decision we need to make.

Instead of using disposable paper cups, especially for hot drinks, consider carrying your own cup. it’s good for your and earth’s health.

The cycle of how hot beverages are served is coming full circle. We’re returning to the practice of using our own cups and glasses, just as it all began. Sometimes, it’s best to leave things as they are.

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