We all know that plastic is not a sustainable material, but what about paper? Paper cups are less durable and often have a shorter lifespan than plastic. The most common type of paper cup is made from recycled paper which means it’s more likely to be contaminated with toxins.
Disposable paper cups and plastic cups are broadly used for taking hot beverages like coffee and tea, and are not safe for health, experts said. Since disposable cups are made of paper and coated with plastic or wax to prevent liquid from leaking out or soaking through the paper, health risks are inevitable.
Paper cups would have been safer if they were lined with plant-based resins. However, because most of them are lined with a thin plastic layer, it could pose health problems.
What makes paper cups dangerous?
It would not be possible to identify the materials used in cups. The plastic layer leaches chemicals when hot liquids are poured in it, which could cause cancer if it contains Bisphenol A (BPA). This harsh chemical mimics the gene and causes breast cancer in women.
Polyethylene (PE) coated Indobev or Nanobev type paper is used for making paper cups. Although PE can withstand some heat, it could still melt if the heat of the beverage exceeds limits.
Experts say that unless they use wax paper, the liquid will leak. This is why despite obvious hazards, high impact polystyrene is used for making disposable cups.
Manufacturing and Environmental Impact
Over the past few decades, extensive changes have occured in the manufacturing of paper and plastic cups. According to the environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper manufacturing has increased more than 300% from 1960 to 2007.
Their figure estimates for plastic generation have increased over 7,000 percent over the same period. But while the manufacturing of these items requires a lot of energy, the environmental impact does not end there.
Over 1 million tons of the paper generated in 2007 were used to produce paper cups and plates. We all know how most of these end up–improperly discarded and left in landfills.
Even worse, a whopping 800,000 tons of plastic cups and plates were manufactured and most of them saw their end in the trash the same year.
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 plastics and paper cups can be manufactured from recycled materials, which is quite useful. It makes them a better option for the environment than those modes 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. Surveys show that over 80 percent of the U.S. population has easy access to recycling programs and centers. However, despite 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 save more.
The only aspect differentiating paper cups from plastic ones is their biodegradability. But when choosing the greener option, we must evaluate their so-called “life cycle assessments”.
In other words, we must weigh each other’s pros and cons, including their possible environmental impacts, 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 plastic. It is in fact one of the most toxic plastic types known to man.
According to each of their life cycle assessments, plastic cups just have the same strain on the environment as paper cups. However, paper cups have a lesser carbon footprint since they require less energy during the production process.
Common questions about paper cups being safer than plastic
Are paper cups healthy?
Paper cups are not as healthy as we think. It largely depends on what the paper cup is made of. Paper cups vary on materials, some are lined with wax, polyethylene plastic, or plant-based material. However, since paper cups are less sturdy than plastic cups, placing hot liquids on them naturally mixes its harsh components with beverages.
Are plastic cups better than paper cups?
Not really. Several studies show just how similar the environmental impacts of paper and plastic cups are – when all factors are taken into consideration. While paper cups are not as toxic and decompose faster in landfills, plastic cups actually require less energy and water when being produced.
How bad are paper cups for the environment?
The recyclability of paper cups is debatable. We all thought of it as a better choice over plastic cups, but they turn out to be worse to some extent. Apart from requiring a lot of energy and other natural resources to be produced, paper cups also contribute to our increasing landfill content and even add to our problem on water pollution. Most paper cups are not purely paper, too, and have to be lined with plastic to be feasible for use.
It is easy to think of paper cups as better alternatives than single use plastic cups. However, updated information shows that this is not really the case. With paper cups needing more water and energy, its environmental effect may be worse than that of plastic cups.