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17 February 2017

The true environmental costs of disposable coffee cups

Society’s increasing addiction to coffee has become a major cause for concern for environmental groups and conscious consumers worldwide. With Australians using over 1 billion disposable coffee cups each year and Americans using 58 billion alone, it’s no surprise this single use product is now the second largest contributor to landfill waste after water bottles.

Environmental awareness around disposable coffee cups is usually centred on its end of life impacts however, the social costs and negative production externalities is deeply concerning and an issue that needs to be discussed more often. When considering the impacts of disposable coffee cups, its negative production externalities far exceed the convenience they offer with the average disposable cup being used for approximately 15 minutes before being discarded.

What are the true costs?

 Each year over 20 million trees are cut down and 12 billion gallons of water is used to manufacture disposable coffee cups. Along with this, tonnes of crude oil is used during the production and transportation process. This results in significant loss of natural resources, ecosystem degradation, reduced carbon absorption and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

The most common misconception about paper cups is they are recyclable. Most paper coffee cups are coated with a plastic resin (polyethylene) which prevents them from being recycled. Some waste collection centres can recycle disposable coffee cups by extracting the plastic from the paper however, this can be very costly and time consuming. This also raises a valid health concern about carcinogenic chemicals leeching from the cups and being ingested.

The plastic lining of paper-based cups. Image by Choice.

After use, disposable coffee cups are discarded in landfill where they are left to degrade. During this process, they release countless CO2 emissions and the plastic breaks down into smaller fragments polluting the soil and waterways, potentially harming wildlife. 

How can we make a difference?

Sitting in the coffee shop and drinking from a ceramic cup is the best way to avoid using a disposable coffee cup but this does require time – a luxury not all of us have. A realistic alternative for our time conscious society is to use a reusable ‘on-the-go’ coffee cup such as a KeepCup. It only takes 15 uses for one KeepCup to break even, every use thereafter benefits the planet.

If we can all begin to reduce our reliance on ‘convenient’ disposable products by simply being prepared with our own reusable products, we will significantly reduce the pre and post production environmental impacts of these products. It’s time for consumers to stand up and start leading change themselves rather than waiting for it to happen. The more we use single use disposable products, the longer businesses will continue to offer it to us.

Responsible Cafes connects thoughtful cafes with conscious consumers by offering incentives to customers that bring in their reusable cups. Find your closest responsible cafe here

Refuse or reuse!

Author & Editor

Tracey Bailey is the founder of Biome Eco Stores and mother of two. After working in corporate communications and starting a family, she made a choice to be part of the solution to our planet's future and started Biome Eco Stores. Tracey is passionate about educating the community about living eco-friendly and sustainable lives through her extended product, chemical, health and environmental knowledge.


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