Mixed Greens Blog

Mixed Greens Blog
Living Sustainably in the Pacific Northwest


What’s Up With the Paper Cup?

Oscars tonight. In the meantime something else to ponder, and sorry, no gowns involved. It’s the not-so-glamorous, but equally frivolous paper cup. Use them once and discard. While others have been carrying their reusable cups into coffee shops the past few years, I rarely have. Truthfully, I don’t buy much coffee out, but still, I coulda/shoulda carried a cup.  I’m into the morning ritual of coffee-making so I start at home with my own favorite cup.

The paper cup’s perceived biodegradability snookered some of us into thinking it was so much better than Styrofoam, and it’s paper and that’s organic, so what’s the problem?


A few things to consider about the paper cup:

  • Recycled materials make up only a small percentage of a paper cup, mostly it’s wood chips. Trees, many trees, are needed.
  • A lot of electricity and water, and then chemicals in the form of plastic are necessary to make a viable paper cup, many times more than what is required to make a Styrofoam cup. We caught on to those a long time ago and are aware that they take centuries to biodegrade. We now need to be just as savvy with the paper cup, which is a glutton at the production end.
  • We’re now ‘consuming’ sixteen billion or more paper coffee cups per year in the U.S, plus plastic lids for each. (Starbucks alone accounts for over 2.3 billion), landfills are overwhelmed with this bulk, and we now know that it isn’t simply paper that’s decomposing, but the paper cup chemicals as well. Not such a clean operation.
  • During the process of biodegrading methane is created, a substance far more environmentally damaging than carbon dioxide.


Check out this website, Sustainability is Sexy. An excellent resource, it has the complete scoop, well organized and succinct information about the paper cup, including a table of statistics that are mind blowing.

Our comfort with having hot beverages delivered in a nice paper cup is analogous to the disposable chopsticks issue in China. NPR featured an interesting piece a couple of years ago, Bring Your Own Chopsticks. They reported that in China a one-hundred acre forest is required to produce enough disposable chopsticks for one day’s use. Like we Americans with our paper cups, the Chinese have become accustomed to the convenience with little regard for the environmental cost. There’s now a campaign in China to diminish the use of disposable chopsticks. As you can imagine there are mixed reviews from those who like the convenience of the take-away, disposable chopstick. Sound familiar?

So many conveniences become habits that are taken for granted. Sometimes environmentally sensitive, sustainably oriented people don’t think about common practices like paper cup use that is, collectively speaking, unbelievably toxic. A new sense of frugality is needed, new habits formed and the unimagined secondary benefits of living sustainably will surprise us. coffee cups 15

A small action toward sustainability: Find your reusable coffee cup and carry it with you like the reusable bags we’re using for groceries. And making coffee at home isn’t a bad idea either.

From a previous post, Rhubarb Jam & Java, Good Mornin’: There are plenty of coffee shops around and I’m an occasional patron, but I love making my own in the morning. The daily ritual means at least as much to me as the java itself. The pouring of boiling water over freshly ground beans, followed by the experience of their steamy aroma and darkly iridescent bubbles – it’s a morning meditation. I close my eyes and have a moment. Using a battery-powered frother (aero latte), I whip warm milk until it’s silky, pour it on top of the strong coffee and have myself a handmade latte. I deliver a cuppa Joe to Bob and our day begins.

Tagged as: , , , ,

1 Responses »

  1. Sally, Another informative, wonderfully written and thought provoking piece. Thank you so much for what you are doing to promote sustainable living. I had no idea that “bio-degradable” paper cups were such an insidious
    force in the environment. Love your poetic description and characterization of the morning coffee ritual as “morning meditation”…it definitely is for me. Carmen