Are plastic or paper cups better for the environment?

During the peak of the pandemic, coffee shops and bars alike switched from glass and reusable plastic cups to disposable alternatives. Some cafes didn’t allow the use of reusable flasks brought from home; in the hope this would curb the spread of the virus.

But as we head back to normality, there are still a huge number of us that want to take precaution, and businesses are the same. That means the resurgence of disposable takeaway cups continues, but which is better for the environment?

A brief history

When the Spanish Flu arrived in 1918, disposable containers also became popular. In the past, people had been using a communal drinking vessel to drink from public water sources, all taking a swig from the same cup. As there was a growing awareness for germs and spreading, this major public health crisis led officials to find new alternatives: Cue the disposable cup.

Through the 20th Century, the flu, and the development of takeaway hot drinks in the US drove the market forward, with different designs and materials being considered. Most commonly, foam and plastic were used, with paper coming later on.

But with the takeaway market ever prevalent, and the public’s knowledge about sustainability and the environment increasing, businesses now have to ensure they’re using green options, such as using compostable food packaging. But is plastic or paper better?

Paper cups

Obviously, everyone thinks that paper cups are better for the environment, as we are forever reminded that paper decomposes or can be recycled while the battle against single-use plastic continues. When left to decompose in landfill or compost, paper takes just two to six weeks to disappear. Plastics on the other hand, aren’t fully biodegradable, meaning it might take between 500-1,000 years to decompose.

So, at first glance, paper seems like the go-to option, but when it comes to recyclability, there may be aspects that suggest plastic is better than you think.


The above decomposition information is about when paper and plastic cups arrive in landfill – but this isn’t the only way to dispose of takeaway packaging. According to statistics from the UK government, 45.5% of household waste is now recycled – a massive 35% increase from 2001.

And the increase in recycling habits has run alongside the technological advancements that allow us to reuse paper and plastic. While cardboard and paper were always accepted for recycling, more and more councils are now accepting plastic in their recycling bins. Now, 78% of plastic that’s been disposed of is recovered and recycled, making the sustainability of paper and plastic cups a little more level.

Energy and resource consumption

However, there is another factor to consider: Energy.

When it comes to paper cups, they biodegrade more quickly, are more widely recycled and create fewer greenhouse gases during production.

You’ll be surprised to know, however, that a plastic drinking vessel actually takes less water and energy to create than its paper counterpart.

So, there is actually much more to consider in the plastic vs paper debate than you first thought. If businesses – and people – can encourage customers to recycle their takeaway cups properly, there is very little difference between their environmental impact. It’s more about us taking the correct measures to ensure our waste has as little impact as possible by recycling and reusing.

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