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Coffee to go: How environmentally harmful are disposable and reusable cups?

Coffee to go: So umweltschädlich sind Ein- und Mehrwegbecher

Taking a coffee to go in an environmentally conscious way is not so easy. In the jungle of the EU plastic ban, the proliferation of paper cups and unanswered questions about reusable cups, many people feel uncertain.

Time for some clarity: we look at the facts and show you why disposable paper cups and even reusable plastic cups are not a good idea.

Whether cardboard or plastic - disposable cups remain disposable cups.

In Germany, around 320,000 disposable cups for hot beverages are consumed every hour. In a year, the country uses a staggering 2.8 billion . To curb this madness across Europe, the EU has banned single-use plastic products from 2021.
Companies are now not allowed to buy any new single-use plastic cups. The plastic to-go cup will therefore disappear from our lives sooner or later, just like plastic cutlery and drinking straws. A success!

But unfortunately, the alternative to the disposable plastic cup in most cases is: Disposable paper cups. Not only do these things become soft, unstable and less appetizing within a few minutes of encountering hot liquid, they are also hardly more compatible with the environment:

Disposable paperboard cups ...

  • consist of non-recycled paper fibers and about 7% plastic coatings.
  • mostly end up in the residual waste, i.e., they are not recycled but incinerated.
  • consume up to 2 liters of water and energy during production.
  • are only used once, so the use of resources in their production is highly inefficient.
So, for the regular transport of our favorite beverage, the disposable paper cup is not a good idea and certainly not a sustainable one.

Reusable cups - not environmentally friendly per se.

Many coffee bars now offer reusable cup systems. For a deposit, you receive one of the cups made of thicker, sturdy plastic with your coffee. After you've finished your coffee, you return the cup or exchange it for a new one at participating locations.

This is to prevent the cup from ending up in kitchen cupboards or, even worse, in the trash can instead of being reused. This is a great thing. But for the reusable cup principle to work, each individual cup must be used very frequently. Why?

  • In production, reusable cups require more material and a higher energy input. 
  • The cups must be transported to the provider's rinsing center to be cleaned using a lot of water. Then they must find their way back to the serving point.
  • All this means that reusable cups only score better than disposable cups in terms of sustainability after the 50th coffee filling.

So, if the single-use plastic cup gets a score of 6 and the single-use paper cup gets a 5, then we give the reusable plastic cup of an organized system a 2 minus in sustainability. That's okay, but there's still room for improvement.

Wondering which coffee to go alternative is truly sustainable? The CUP coffee to go cup! In this post, we'll explain why having your own thermal mug is the best decision you can make for the environment.

Perfect for this.