The Long and Sordid Journey of a Disposable Coffee Cup

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Have you ever wondered about that disposable coffee cup in your hand, where it came from and where it is headed? Have you ever considered what went into the making of it, how far it traveled, and where it will end up? Yeah, we think about this all the time.

Paper coffee cups are made from four main components:

·     a paper layer.  The paper part of the cup typically consists of 90% virgin paper board and 10% post-consumer paper. 

·     a polyethylene layer. The plastic lining layer is made out of polyethylene, the most common type of plastic, which is a mixture of ethylene and benz-aldehyde. Polyethylene has a high melting point, 248 to 266 °F, which makes it good” cups that are used for hot liquids. 

·     a plastic top. The plastic lid is made from plastic #6, also known as polystyrene and known to leach styrene, on the US List of Carcinogens and has BPA and phthalates in it.

·      A paper sleeve. This sleeve made from paperboard in a separate process using pulp that is corrugated (meaning it has more surface area than most paper products, it is tough and tear resistant.   

First the paper part

·      The raw materials to make a paper cup include about 9000-12000 kg of steam, 960-1000 kw/h of power from electricity and 50m3 cooling water will be used per ton of raw materials. 

·      Around 357,000,000 trees are cut every year to produce all of Starbucks polyethylene paper cups. Machines used to harvest the trees are cable and grappler skidders, feller buncher, forklift, and brush cutters. All of these machines use chemical energy by using diesel to run. The kinetic energy of the machines cut, grab, and transport the trees. 

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·      Once the trees are harvested, they are sent to a debark facility. A debark facility usually is comprised of debark machines that run on electricity, diesel, wood waste, or a combination of one, two, or all three of the fuels. Depending on the type of fuel used, electrical, chemical or thermal energy maybe used, or a combination of all three may be used. 

·      Once the trees are debarked, they are sent to a separate facility to be chipped. The trees are chipped with kinetic energy from huge knives attached to steel wheels.  The knives are run with chemical and electrical energy or a combination of the two or just one of the two – chemical energy may come from diesel, electrical energy is from electricity. Once the trees are chipped they are ready to be converted into pulp.

·      Converting chips to pulp can be done with a mechanical or chemical process. The mechanical process requires more energy, and the pulp product is slightly discolored and has more texture. While the chemical process is less energy intensive, the pulp product can be adjusted to a variety of different shades and an array of textures. However, the chemical process is not as efficient as the mechanical process, since the amount of fiber collected is about 50% to 60% of what you would get if the mechanical process is done.

·      A chemical process is used since the desired pulp will be bright white and smooth. The chips are fed into a digester where chemicals are added. The digester is then heated (thermal energy) to remove lignin, which is a fiber that keeps the chips together. The solution is then heated and fed through different digesters as other chemicals are added.  By the end of the pulping process around “10 tons of steam and 1000 kWh of electric power per ton of cellulose fiber pulp produced” will be used. The end product will be a large roll of pulp, which will later be converted from pulp into paper. 

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·      If post consumer content is used on the cups, only a certain grade of post consumer paper may be used.  They use machines powered by electrical energy to use kinetic energy to shred the paper, and add chemicals into the paper. From here, the pulping process is repeated. Once the post-consumer pulp is made, it is often mixed with virgin pulp, typically about 10%.

·      Next, the pulp is processed into paper through a paper machine. The paper machine takes the wet pulp, mixes it and slowly thins it out. The paper machine uses electrical energy to run kinetic energy to press and mold the paper, while thermal energy is used to dry the paper. After going through the machine, the new paper ends up in rolls. 

·      The new paper is then fed through a converter machine to be cut into pieces of paper board that will be later converted into a cup. 

·      Once the pieces of paper board are cut, the boards are fed through a printing machine, in this case, to get the logo printed on them. Once the logo is printed on the virgin paper board, the paper is fed through a cup making machine. The boards of paper are folded and creased and thermal energy is used to seal the cups sides together. 

·      The end product is a paper cup weighing about 8.3 g/cup, with a material specific energy that equals 66 MJ/kg and an embodied energy of 0.55 MJ/cup.

Then the plastic lining part

·     Ethylene and Benz-aldehyde are mixed and react to make polyethylene. The polyethylene is poured into a pelletizer where it’s turned into pellets to be put into storage until they are heated with thermal energy to be shaped.  The polyethylene pellets are combined with the virgin bleached paper, which is the later stage of the paper lining.

Then the plastic top part:


·     Polystyrene is a thermoplastic, which flows if it is heated above its glass transition temperature (which is roughly 100°C). Polystyrene contains carbon and hydrogen, making it relatively strong, because of its strong intramolecular forces. The lids are designed in such a way, to be sealed onto the cup, with a small sipping hole. Not all lids actually fit the cups they are designed to fit, which can result in waste and spills.

And then the Cup Sleeve:

·      Paperboard is thicker than normal paper, which increases its tearing resistance but also requires more pulp in production. It is also a highly porous material, containing averagely 70% air, which must be injected into pulp in a separate process.   

Once the paper cups are made, they are sent locations around the world where they wait to have coffee poured into them to be served to a coffee customer and used for 10-20 minutes.  A majority of the cups will end up in the landfill because they are not recyclable or compostable because of the plastic lining. 



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Recycling and Landfill implications:

·     Polyethylene paper cups are not recyclable or compostable except in some countries with rare special facilities. 

·     The polyethylene lining must be removed from the paper lining since they are two different materials and go through different processes to be recycled or composted. The majority of transfer stations around the world do not have the infrastructure to remove the polyethylene lining. But even if a transfer station had the infrastructure, they would still not want to recycle polyethylene cups since recycling them is not cost efficient. (3 billion Starbuck’s coffee cups end up in the landfill every year, even in very progressive cities like San Francisco. 

·     Garbage trucks use chemical or electrical energy to operate kinetic energy to pick up the polyethylene cups and transport them to the landfill. The cups, which are now trash, will head to a landfill where they will spend the rest of their years slowly degrading in the landfill, emitting carcinogens, methane and carbon dioxide.

·      Corrugated paperboard is made in the same way the cup is made, but without the plastic lining, which makes it 100% recyclable. However, it must be removed from the disposable cup and placed in the proper bin, which is uncommon.   



Reuse your stainless steel cup thousands of times. It will stand up to the heaviest use and the most vigorous cleaning and sterilizing temperatures in your dishwasher. To learn more about why stainless steel is the environmentally responsible choice for all your reusables, click here.




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