Your Paper Coffee Cup Is an Eco-Nightmare

It may be shocking to learn that the paper coffee cups you use every morning on the way to work actually cannot really be recycled.

They might be made out of paper and paper is recyclable, but these cups also have a tightly adhered plastic lining, and that makes the whole thing un-reusable in the majority of major recycling facilities. While these cups can be recycled, they require specialized recycling processes they rarely get. And most people simply don’t know this, so we keep using them by the millions, making paper cups an eco-nightmare.

A lot of people consider paper cups to be a step up from foam to-go cups. The ban on foam single-use cups is increasingly picking up steam, which is a great thing. Polystyrene foam is no good for anyone. But, so many of us falsely associate single-use paper cups as the greener option. It is simply not true.

Foam cups are made from byproducts of petroleum and natural gas and take over a million years to decompose in a landfill. They contain toxic chemicals that can leach into food when heated. It takes just under 5,000 gallons of water to make 10,000 foam cups and annual production releases 680 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to a 2006 study conducted in the Netherlands, paper cups were less polluting in 5 out of 10 given categories, and polystyrene was less polluting in the other 5. Even though we perceive one cup to be less sustainable than the other, they are cut from the same, planet-polluting cloth.

It takes 20 years for your daily to-go paper coffee cup to decompose in a landfill. Think of how many cups Americans consume each day, and how that adds up, year after year. Sure, some companies manufacture biodegradable, corn-based linings to help their cups have less of an environmental impact, but the vast majority of national chains do not offer these. Plus, it still doesn’t solve the problem of recycling. Virgin paper is still being wasted in mass quantities.