Using Disposable Cups? Paper vs Plastic: What to Choose for a Lower Impact

Disposable cups have become quite ubiquitous since their debut in the early years of the 20th century – and they have also come a long way to reach the modern cups we’re all used to. At the same time, both paper and plastic cups come in handy when it comes to the convenience of drinking on-the-go without having to worry about the cleanup.

But while each type comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, can we decide once and for all which is better for the environment? While they both conserve water by eliminating the need for washing, other factors involved in the manufacturing and disposal of disposable cups affect the environment.

Short History of Disposable Cups

The paper cup made its first appearance in the modern in the 20th century. The famous Dixie Cup is the brand of the line of disposable paper cups first developed in the U.S. in 1907 by Lawrence Luellen. But what prompted the transition from glass or ceramic mugs to the ever-useful plastic ones?

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was common practice to drink from shared glasses or dippers at public water sources, including school faucets or water barrels in trains. Evidently, this kind of sharing ended up causing public health concerns. Lawrence Luellen, an attorney of law from Boston, Massachusetts, was the one to do something about the public shared glasses and dippers.

His paper cups remained unchallenged in their success as disposable cups until the 1970s, when Solo Cups swept in with their signature red cup. Ever since then, the red plastic cups have become extremely popular. They are notably used in American university and college games, including flip cup and beer pong.

Today, both paper and plastic cups are quite ubiquitous. But is one better than the other – environmentally wise? Research on the matter is confusing, to say the least, but today we’ll try to shed some light on the battle paper vs. plastic cups.

Manufacturing & Environmental Impact

Over the past few decades, extensive changes have occurred in the manufacturing of paper and plastic – cups and other items. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper manufacturing has increased more than 300 percent from 1960 to 2007. Their figure estimates for plastics are even more startling; the plastic generation has increased over 7,000 percent over the same time period.

But while the manufacturing of these items requires a lot of energy, the environmental impact does not end there. In 2007, for example, more than 1 million tons of the paper generated was used for paper cups and plates. Almost of all them were improperly discarded of and ended up in landfills. That same year, over 800,000 tons of plastic cups and plates were manufactured and most of them saw their end in the trash.

Recycling Disposable Cups

Paper cups have one advantage over plastic cups in their biodegradability. While they break down over time without causing harm to the environment, plastic cups don’t degrade for many, many years. At the same time, their impact on landfills is a constant concern, given the immense volume of cups produced annually.

On the other hand, both plastic and paper cups can be manufactured from recycled materials, which is quite useful. It makes them a better option for the environment than those made with conventional techniques and materials. Using recycled materials saves a lot of energy by doing away with the need to obtain raw materials.

Recycling disposable cups could also reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. According to the latest polls, over 80 percent of the U.S. population has access to recycling programs and centers. However, in spite of the convenient availability of recycling options, people rarely recycle paper or plastic cups.

For the average consumer, these environmental issues are often counterbalanced by the savings offered by plastic and paper cups. Not only are they convenient to use, but purchasing them in bulk means they cost pennies each. No-one wants to risk broken mugs or glasses when they’re on the go – hence the popularity of disposable cups.



Lifecycle Assessments

So far, the only aspect differentiating paper cups from plastic ones is their biodegradability. But when we decide our greenest option, we must evaluate their so-called “lifecycle assessments.” In other words, we must consider and contrast a variety of possible environmental impacts, including their carbon footprints, impact on global warming, resource consumption, harmful chemicals, or ozone depletion they might cause.

What most people often overlook in the plastic vs. paper debate is that Styrofoam is also a plastic. According to each of their lifecycle assessments, plastic cups cause no more strain on the environment than a paper cup. However, the carbon footprint of a plastic cup is smaller than a paper cup’s, and it requires less energy during the production process.

Does that make plastic cups the greener alternative? Not so fast.

We must also take into consideration that, as we already mentioned, Styrofoam takes longer to degrade. This emphasizes the fact that, in the end, our consumer choices depend largely on what’s the most important to us. If you’re mainly concerned about pollution or waste reduction, you should stay away from the plastic cup, even though its carbon footprint is lower.

According to Tim Greiner, managing director of Pure Strategies, in the case of paper vs. plastic, “one is better on climate change and water” – that would be plastic – “one is better on toxicity, and neither is great on recyclability.”

Paper vs. Plastic Cups: A Tie?

One Dutch study conducted recently is the perfect illustration of just how similar the environmental impacts of paper and plastic cups are – when all factors are taken into consideration. The study evaluated 10 categories of environmental impact, looking at both types of cup in each category. According to their results, paper cups performed better in five categories, and plastic cups were better in the other five.

When compared to the manufacturing of paper cups, making plastic cups:

  • requires about 17 percent less energy
  • needs about 42 percent less water
  • uses 22 percent less petroleum to gather materials and ship cups
  • doesn’t necessitate water harming chemicals if not disposed of properly (such as chlorine dioxide)
  • doesn’t call for cutting of trees

Comparatively, when compared to plastic cups, paper cups:

  • generate around 28 percent fewer greenhouse gasses
  • aren’t toxic
  • decompose in a landfill in about 20 years, instead of 1 million-plus
  • are much easier to recycle and recycled at a higher rate
  • decompose in water in just a few days, in contrast to 50 years

So the choice is yours! Producing plastic cups is cheaper, but they can only be used for cold drinks. Paper cups are less eco-friendly, but the prevent any thermal burns. A combination of the two would be my recommendation.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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