The Use, Type, and History Of Paper and Plastic Cups

Which Is Better

There are many discussions as to whether paper cups are superior to plastic cups from an ethical standpoint.

Some fast food and snack food franchises have moved to paper from plastic cups due to market demand.

The question is whether the paper cup is safer for the ecosystem than the plastic cup.

Which is better: paper or plastic cups? It depends. Plastic cups are great for multiple usages, but if not properly disposed of, they can harm the environment. On the other hand, paper cups break down easily, but not all types are biodegradable.

It might be hard to believe that plastic is better because we have been led to believe that paper is better.

This article will further enlighten you on some fun facts about the debate of paper cups vs. plastic cups.

History of Disposable Cups

Disposable paper cups first appeared in the United States in the early 1900s. The paper cup came to be known as the Dixie cup.

These cups started to replace communal drinking cups used at water fountains as public health issues began to arise.

Hospitals and schools soon introduced paper cups for sanitary purposes.

Early analysis has found that the cost per use of a paper cup is lower than cleaning and sanitizing reusable bottles.

Paper cups used for hot and cold drinks are made of solid bleached sulfate (SBS) paperboard.

They come with a poly coating applied for waterproofing. Paper cups’ exact composition differs somewhat, but most of them are at least 90% paper fiber.

Clay and wax liners are for waterproofing. However, with the advent of polyethylene (PE), plastic liners and coatings are almost uniformly used.

The use of PE and similar liner materials offer greater efficiency than other sorts of materials.

It overcomes the unpleasant smells and tastes associated with clay and wax. Most of the cups today are made with a coat of PE, which is not biodegradable.

Although others use polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable bioplastic, other PLA questions prohibit it from being a simple winner over PE.

Getting to Know More About Disposable Cups

Paper Cups

Paper is the most expensive alternative, and despite common opinion, not all paper cups are biodegradable.

Utilizing paper as a raw material for disposable cups can sound like a smart idea.

Yet in reality, paper cups are frequently viewed and marketed as compostable, recyclable, or even organic.

This is not entirely accurate, as paper cups are never totally devoid of plastics.

Paper cups have an internal acrylic covering to keep their liquid contents from contacting the paper.

This layer represents around 5% of their total weight, indicating higher energy consumption and higher CO2 emissions.

Also, the separation of paper and plastic is difficult and highly expensive.

For this reason, paper cups are sometimes refused by recycling plants and are directed to landfills.

Paper often requires more material by weight for proper insulation relative to polystyrene and plastic cups.

Another factor is the European-wide regulatory requirements that greatly prohibit the use of recycled paper fiber in goods.

It can come into contact with food products through packaging, but also plates and glasses. Paper cups are twice as heavy as common plastic cups and affect the atmosphere when shipped.

Plastic Cups

Plastic cups ought to be at the top of the list of environmentally-friendly options. They are recyclable, washable, and reusable and also use much less material compared to paper.

Thus, they produce lower transportation and fuel costs. Hence, plastics are the cheapest product to produce and buy, yet soft plastics should not be used for hot beverages.

While not all plastics contain the same material, the raw material is still crude oil. Such plastics can contaminate the environment to a small or large extent.

The impact will depend on the energy used, the CO2 production, and the recycling potential. Next to biopolymer, polypropylene is the safest material to use for the environment.

Use of Disposable Cups

There is growing concern about the health consequences of using disposable cups, particularly for hot liquids.

Plastics and other ingredients used in cups can leech into your beverage. The main drawback of plastic cups is that they are good for only one use.

A lot of work makes them only for them to be used for a single coffee or drink that lasts less than an hour.

Problems With Disposable Cups

  • Production – The production of single-use cups is labor-intensive and has numerous peripheral environmental consequences.
  • Use – Certain forms of plastic cups can have a detrimental effect on human health.
  • Disposal – Less than 1% of the cups created are reclaimed and recycled. The balance is sent to landfills, incinerated, or contaminated by the natural world.

Production of Disposable Cups

The manufacturing of disposable cups depends heavily on natural resources.

Manufacturers plant at least 20 million trees each year to make single-use paper cups. This requires an energy supply.

The conversion of trees into paper, and paper into functional cups, requires a significant amount of energy, the source of which is almost entirely fossil fuels.

It is calculated that the processing of every four paper cups results in one pound of CO2 emissions.

Unlike paper cups, plastic and styrofoam cups do not require wood input. However, oil derivatives are another scarce resource.

There is a range of concerns related to the environmental effects of cup production, but they are of the utmost importance.

  1. Emissions – The electricity used to generate billions of cups annually results in greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming.
  2. Natural Resource Use – Inputs for disposable cup output are based on scarce natural resources.

Disposal of Cups

Be sure to dispose of disposable cups properly. It is sad that some people dispose of cups unethically.

Paper cups are difficult to recycle. Most of them have thin plastic liners to prevent liquids from saturating the paper portion of the cup. This plastic filler is difficult to separate, and most recycling plants are not designed for this form of recycling.

Plastic cups may be recycled, although this depends on the form of plastic used. It is incorrect to say that all plastic cups can easily be recycled.

Here are some of the concerns regarding the disposal of disposable cups:

1. Health

The use of disposable cups can directly impact your physical health due to the plastic chemicals used in their manufacturing. Microplastics can pass through the food chain and into your diet. The emissions from factories affect global air quality.

2. Cost

To fix this growing dilemma, many policymakers are beginning to issue a tax on disposable cups that will be passed on to the user.

Of course, some companies have a good heart and think more about saving the environment. Some big companies, such as Starbucks, give discounts to anyone who brings their own cups, helping you save money.

3. Environment

Pollution from single-use plastics is plaguing our environment. It leaves our outdoor recreation less fun.

If our generation does not address this issue, it will be an even bigger problem for our children’s generation.

Every year, 20 billion paper cups are used for coffee. This leads to 6.5 million trees being cut down, 4 billion gallons of lost water, and high electricity.

If you are curious, the electricity consumption related to their production is enough to power 50,000 houses.

Here are some things you can do to help:

  • Reusable cups are the preferred alternative because they can be used several times, which reduces the amount of money required to produce them. You will need water and soap, but not too much.

    Don’t forget that plastic cups still use a lot of water and additives during manufacturing.

  • Invest in a set of washable and reusable cups, which makes environmental and economic sense.

  • Have your beverage while you’re out of your house. Politely refuse plastic cups and distilled water, and ask for your drink to be served in your own mug, cup, or glass, if possible.

  • Starbucks and many other coffee franchises offer a range of personal reusable tumblers that consumers can purchase and re-use. If you love coffee, find out if you have the option to bring and use your own reusable tumbler or mug.

  • If your only choice is a disposable cup, use a recyclable plastic one. Try to reuse or recycle the disposable cups.


Neither plastic cups nor paper cups are good. Yes, they both have advantages and disadvantages, but they still have a negative impact on our environment.

If you have to choose, it might be best to pick plastic cups. Just be sure to dispose of them properly for recycling.

Recent Posts