The climate impact of a coffee cup

New research commissioned by food packaging manufacturer Huhtamaki suggests that paper coffee cups could have a lower carbon footprint over the course of their life than reusable cups – provided they are recycled.

The study was carried out by by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and focused on two scenarios: a cafe scenario, comparing paper cups with traditional ceramic cups, and an on-the-go scenario, where takeaway paper cups were compared with reusable plastic and steel cups. It was revealed that in the cafe scenario a ceramic cup would need to be reused 350 times to ‘break even’ with the carbon impact of the paper cup. The majority of the carbon footprint of the ceramic cup came from the cleaning process, with the impact increasing if the cup is washed inefficiently.

Steel reusable cups would need to be reused a minimum of 130 times to have a lower carbon footprint than a paper cup, while plastic cups would need to be reused 20-36 times. It was also revealed that of different types of paper cups, those with a plant-based polyethylene (PE) coating performed the best, producing 10.2 grams of CO2 equivalent per cup, compared to around 10.4 grams for a standard PE coating and just over 13 grams for cups made of compostable materials.

According to the research, recycling a traditional paper cup reduces its carbon footprint by 54 per cent – and high-quality fibre in a paper cup can be recycled up to seven times. The study also suggests that if a paper cup is recycled it will always have a lower carbon footprint than a ceramic cup used in a cafe.