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Disposable coffee cups: what impact do they have?

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Think of an average office, with people having an invigorating coffee or tea four or five times a day and then throwing the cup away. That’s an awful lot of waste that ends up in the bin.

What are the options?

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Coffee and tea have become essential parts of every office – and so has the cup! Realistically, there are only three options to choose from: reusable ceramic cups or disposable ones in either paper or plastic. Which is the most sustainable?

Let’s look at some facts

More energy is used to produce a ceramic cup than a disposable cup. A lot of water and washing-up liquid is needed to clean ceramic cups and they are also heavier which means more fuel is used to transport them e.g. from the factory to the store.

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An average disposable plastic coffee cup weighs just a few grams, making transporting and later disposing of them more efficient. And they can be more easily recycled. With regards to paper cups, they are lightweight too but trees are cut down to produce them and they are not generally recyclable due to their plastic coating.
The considerations don’t stop there. It’s been discovered that the impact a ceramic cup has on the environment can only be reduced when it is used and re-used many times over many years – between 500 and 3,000 times according to the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, TNO.

Throw or rinse?

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An independent study by TNO looked at the so-called environmental “shadow costs”. For example, how much it costs to produce or dispose of them. Globally, the shadow costs of ceramic cups or mugs are 20% higher than disposable cups(i).

However, it depends on the way people use ceramic cups. According to TNO, their impact can be reduced by washing or rinsing them less often. More specifically, the impact of using a ceramic cup can be improved if it was used more than four times without being washed. And the environmental impact of using disposable cups can be even further improved just by re-using them!

So throw or rinse is one of the questions but where do we want to put our priorities? In saving energy costs and water over the whole life cycle? Or saving the oil resources that go into plastic? It might seem contrary to common sense, but using plastic for things like disposable cups can actually be the more sustainable choice.

And at my office?

In many offices, we have to use whatever cup the coffee machine offers us. But we can still make a difference! If you use disposal cups, think about re-using them – particularly if you’re only drinking water. Check if the used cups are collected and sorted for recycling or burned to recover energy. The polystyrene in plastic coffee cups is easily recycled into items such as ice scrapers, key rings and cup trays(ii) . Paper cups will most likely go into the bin because their coated linings make recycling a challenge. However, you image description can normally use them more than once if you carefully rinse them with lukewarm water. If you prefer a ceramic cup, don’t clean it thoroughly every time just rinse it quickly with a little water.

So, it’s important to look at the bigger picture before jumping to conclusions relating to sustainability issues. And we all need to remember that each and every one of us can look for ways in which we, ourselves, can lower the environmental impact of the things we use.


(i) Summary Research Drinking Systems, 2007. TNO