IX: “It’s Not Easy Being Green” – Disposable Cups and the Environment


litter Figure 1

Fast Food Litter, 2015. (“Monitoring Trash Accumulation in Sewer Inlets”)

According to a report from Intercycle, LLC, a recycling equipment seller, over 58 billion paper cups were used by Americans in 2010, and almost all of them wound up in landfills. Recently environmentally conscious consumers have called on quick-service restaurants to provide eco-friendly fast food packaging. According to a 2011 report, making paper cups (both hot and cold beverage cups) each year requires over nine million trees, 5.7 billion gallons of water, and enough energy to light 77,000 homes. Along with “bring your own” cup campaigns by coffee chains, a growing in literature on reducing packaging waste has also encouraged change. Companies have responded with eco-friendly fast food containers and cups such as the biodegradable cups below.

biodegradable water cups Figure 2

100% Biodegradable Coated Paper Water Cup, 2015. (Biodegradebags)

What does being an “eco-friendly” disposable cup actually mean? In 2011 PepsiCo. introduced five new options for foodservice cups that are either compostable or recyclable and are deemed “eco-friendly” by consumers. They offer both recyclable clear plastic cups and compostable paper cups to their venders. In a press release PepsiCo. stated that the company introduced green cups not only because they were attempting to be more environmentally friendly but also because customers were asking for them. According to research done by Beveragepulse.com in 2010, 94% of consumers worry about the environmental impact of beverage packaging. Along with offering cups made out of recycled materials, some specialty producers offer biodegradable cups that are reinforced with a corn based resin lining called Polylactic Acid (PLA) instead of the polyethylene that is more commonly used in paper cup manufacturing.

Not only are eco-friendly disposable foodservice products being manufactured and sold to vendors, but advice literature on reducing waste by environmentalist agencies and activist groups has also increased. In 2012 the Dogwood Alliance came out with a report, Greening Fast Food Packaging: A Roadmap to Best Practices, offering a framework for assessing current packaging and providing instructions for improving the industry. The report describes success stories from different fast food establishments that have made the changes including Chick-Fil-A and Dunkin Donuts. Both companies have become members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. To see a list of the other companies involved in the Sustainable Packaging Coalition click on the image below.

Sustainable packaging coalition list Figure 5

– Figure 5: “Sustainable Packaging Coalition – List of Current Members”, 2015. (Sustainable Packaging Coalition)

In 2015 the United States Environmental Protection Agency came out with its own guide for restaurants and food services on how to reduce food and packaging waste. Contrary to what the Foodservice Packaging Institute states in its literature, the EPA report suggests that replacing one-time packaging with reusable products would reduce waste, lessen the companies’ environmental impacts, and save money. The EPA guide book offers strategies for using environmentally-friendly packaging and selecting products that are made out materials that can be recycled in restaurants’ communities. The report suggests giving discounts to customers who bring in their own containers.

Burgerville_0 Figure 6

Compostable soda cups and lids launch at Burgerville, 2010. (Greener Package)

The EPA report and other recycling platforms state that recycling paper cups is actually less straightforward than recycling other paper goods. Unlike boxes, food packaging, or sheets of paper, the recycling process for paper cups is complicated by two factors. The first is that some recycling stations do not take materials that have been soiled by food or beverages. The second, and more complicated factor, is that most paper cups are made out of composite materials that lack an established collection and reclamation process. Even though most paper cups are made out of 95% paper, the 5% polyethylene coating that is put on the cup for waterproofing complicates the recycling process.

Super cup mirror Figure 3a


Super cup mirror Figure 3b