Article image

Paper coffee cups are not so eco-friendly after all

Paper coffee cups may not be the environmentally friendly alternative to plastic cups that we hoped for. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have found that these seemingly eco-friendly substitutes may be just as harmful as their plastic counterparts.

As distressing news continues to emerge about plastic pollution contaminating every part of our planet, consumers are opting for what they believe to be more eco-friendly options. 

A notable trend has been the growing preference for paper coffee cups. Many cafes have transitioned from plastic to paper cups, often served with paper lids. However, this well-intentioned switch might not be the ideal solution.

Studying disposable paper cups 

In a meticulously executed study, the Gothenburg team observed the effects of disposable cups made of various materials on butterfly mosquito larvae. 

“We left paper cups and plastic cups in wet sediment and water for a few weeks and followed how the leached chemicals affected the larvae. All of the mugs negatively affected the growth of mosquito larvae,” noted study lead author Professor Bethanie Carney Almroth.

Given that paper on its own is neither fat nor water-resistant, it needs a surface coating to make it suitable for food packaging. This coating is a plastic layer designed to protect the paper from the contents it holds, like the piping hot coffee from your favorite café. 

Paper cups have toxins

In recent times, this protective plastic film has been made from polylactide (PLA), a type of bioplastic commonly derived from renewable resources like corn, cassava, or sugarcane. 

Although it’s frequently labeled as biodegradable – implying its ability to decompose faster than conventional oil-based plastics under ideal conditions – the study indicates that PLA can still have toxic implications.

Professor Carney Almroth points out the grave environmental challenge posed by bioplastics, which do not break down effectively when they end up in the environment, in water. 

“There may be a risk that the plastic remains in nature and resulting microplastics can be ingested by animals and humans, just as other plastics do. Bioplastics contain at least as many chemicals as conventional plastic.”

Potential health hazard of paper cups

But what about the direct health implications for humans? “Some chemicals in plastics are known to be toxic, others we lack knowledge about,” said Carney Almroth.

“Paper packaging also presents a potential health hazard compared to other materials, and it’s becoming more common. We are exposed to the plastics and the associated chemicals via contact with food.”

Transformative shifts are needed

The study authors emphasize the need for transformative shifts to address the ongoing environmental and health challenges posed by plastic pollution. 

“When disposable products arrived on the market after the Second World War, large campaigns were conducted to teach people to throw the products away, it was unnatural to us! Now we need to shift back and move away from disposable lifestyles,” said Carney Almroth.

“It is better if you bring your own mug when buying takeaway coffee. Or by all means, take a few minutes, sit down, and drink your coffee from a porcelain mug.”

On a global scale, discussions are currently in progress at the UN, aiming to negotiate a binding agreement to curb the proliferation of plastics both in our societies and the natural environment. 

Phasing out problematic plastics 

As a member of the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty (SCEPT), Carney Almroth and her fellow scientists are supporting the cause by providing invaluable scientific insights into these negotiations. 

The coalition vehemently advocates for the phasing out of superfluous and problematic plastics. They also emphasize the importance of due diligence to ensure we aren’t simply replacing one detrimental product with another.

“We at SCEPT are calling for transparency requirements within the plastics industry that forces a clear reporting of what chemicals all products contain, much like in the pharmaceutical industry. But the main goal of our work is to minimize plastic production,” said Carney Almroth.

More about eco-friendly cups

In today’s fast-paced world, disposable cups have become an everyday convenience for many. But with concerns about environmental degradation rising, the demand for eco-friendly alternatives has surged. Eco-friendly cups, crafted from sustainable materials and designed for minimal environmental impact, have emerged as a frontrunner in this green revolution.

Materials matter

Eco-friendly cups typically come from renewable resources. Manufacturers make these cups from materials like bamboo, paper sourced from responsibly managed forests, or even bioplastics derived from plants. Unlike conventional plastic cups, which can take hundreds of years to decompose, eco-friendly materials break down much faster, reducing the strain on our landfills.

Less carbon footprint

Producing conventional plastic cups emits significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. In contrast, eco-friendly cups often have a smaller carbon footprint. For instance, bamboo grows rapidly, absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide, which offsets the emissions from manufacturing products made from it.

No harmful chemicals

Many plastic cups contain chemicals like BPA, which can leach into beverages and pose health risks. Eco-friendly cups, on the other hand, steer clear of such harmful additives. By choosing these, consumers can enjoy their drinks without worrying about ingesting toxic chemicals.

Reusability and recyclability

While many eco-friendly cups are disposable, an increasing number now come as reusable options. Materials like stainless steel and glass make for durable, long-lasting cups. And when these eco-cups have reached the end of their lifespan, many can be easily recycled, further reducing waste.

Supporting sustainable industries

By purchasing eco-friendly cups, consumers support industries committed to sustainable practices. This demand can shift market dynamics, encouraging more companies to adopt eco-friendly strategies.

In summary, the shift towards eco-friendly cups isn’t just a trend, it’s a necessary step towards creating a sustainable future. By making the switch, consumers can enjoy their favorite beverages guilt-free, knowing they’re making a difference. As more people adopt these green alternatives, the positive impact on our planet will only continue to grow.

The research is published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Want to read more? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day