03rd of February 2017Composting & recycling

Paper cup recycling – Just the tip of the iceberg

As take out coffee consumption grows, the significant volume of disposable paper cups have become a symbol of our collective over-consumption. Whilst reusable cups are the most responsible options, they are not always the most practically or convenient option.

The global consumption of all disposable cups is estimated at 487 billion units a year – 250 billion are made from plastic coated paper, and an incredible 94 billion are still made from foam polystyrene.

Unfortunately most of these cups are not recycled and instead end up in landfill where the materials and resources used to produce them are lost- The good news is that there are solutions and manufacturers are capable of producing single use disposable cups from rapidly renewable, sustainably sourced raw materials that are non toxic and can readily be recycled after use, returning valuable resources and nutrients back into the cycle.


View infographic here

The modern paper cup was originally invented in 1907 to reduce the spread of disease resulting from communal water cups. It evolved from a simple paper cone to a two-piece, wax coated construction in 1950. In 1960, the foam polystyrene cup became the preferred choice and reigned supreme for 27 years. In 1987, Starbucks, motivated by the negative environmental impact of polystyrene cups, made the change to paper lined with a plastic water-proof coating – setting the industry benchmark for single use disposable hot cups for the next 22 years.

In 2009, the next wave of innovation was released and the first PLA bioplastic coated paper cups made their debut.

Why PLA coated cups are a better alternative?

A proven technical and commercially viable alternative to conventional plastic coating paper has been available since early 2006, when the first PLA bioplastic coated paper cups were introduced to the market.

Currently less than 5% of total global annual use of hot paper cups – (approximately 4 billion units) are coated with PLA. PLA coated cups do cost more than conventional cups – up to 30% more – but with the average cost of a paper cup at around 8 cents it translates to an additional 2 cents per cup – a small price to pay in order to enjoy the convenience of consuming your favourite beverage on the go, in a sustainably produced product that can be diverted from landfill.
Replacing conventional plastic with PLA to produce single use food service disposable packaging provides a number of environmental benefits:

  • PLA bioplastic is made from rapidly renewable resources, not oil
  • The production of PLA bioplastic emits up to 75% less CO2 than conventional plastics – this fact alone makes this material a more sustainable option than the conventional plastic it replaces
  • PLA bioplastic is commercially compostable – allowing the packaging along with any food residues to be diverted from landfill
  • Unlike regular plastic coated paper, the PLA bioplastic coating dissolves in the paper recycling process with no special equipment required.

Paper cups are not the only product made from a combination of paper and plastic. Other products in the market that face a similar recycling challenge to regular plastic coated paper cups would be aseptic packaging, such as Tetrapak and Combibloc cartons, used to package a wide variety of liquids including milk and juice. This packaging has multiple layers of paper and plastic and a thin layer of aluminium foil. Many councils in Australia accept these products in the comingled recycling bin yet they would require the same equipment needed to recycle paper cups which begs the question, where do they end up?

Tetrapak is the world’s largest producer of poly-coated packaging, producing 184 billion units every year. They claim 43 billion units are recycled which, if true, is remarkable but is still less than 23% of total annual production.

In 2010/11 The Australian Bureau of Statistic recorded nearly 36,000 tonnes of aseptic packaging waste generated by industry and households for the year. It recorded 18,870 tonnes of poly-coated paper waste. This is a small fraction of the 18 million tonnes of waste that went to landfill that year including: 8 million tonnes of organic waste, 1.8 million tonnes of plastic, 1.7 million tonnes of paper, 556,000 tonnes of metal and 443,000 tonnes of paper.

The only proven technical and commercially viable long term solution, not only for paper cups but all single use food service disposables, is to produce them in a way that aligns with and supports the emerging circular economy. The circular economy is the antithesis of our current linear production model of take, make, dispose.

We need to manufacture products from sustainably sourced, abundant, rapidly renewable, non-toxic materials that return nutrients back into the cycle after disposal. This is not some wishful thinking about a utopian future. Today many innovative plastic alternatives are used to produce high quality, functional packaging with a significantly reduced environmental impact. We hope the current media focus on coffee cups can help raise awareness of the shortcomings of the current unsustainable, linear economic model that uses durable materials like plastic to produce packaging with a very short functional lifespan. We want to encourage consumers and business owners to challenge the status quo and help the world transition to a sustainable circular economy.

Australian Bureau of Statistics – Waster Generation by Industry and Households 2010-11
Australian Food News – Aeseptic Packaging data 2009
Tetra Pak's Sustainability Recycling web page

SIG's Environment web page
2015 Industy Edge Report Plymer Coated Fiber Packaging