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Have you ever thought about the packaging behind your morning latte? Whether you’re the owner of a business or restaurant, or simply someone who appreciates convenience and portability, disposable cups play a key role in satisfying customers across the country.

There are dozens of options when it comes to choosing the right cup for your business, so hopefully this information helps you narrow the playing field and make the right choice. All disposable cups ultimately fall into one of three categories: paper, plastic, or foam.

Different materials, lids, and designs make certain cups suitable for different applications. For instance: a specially designed plastic lined coffee cup will keep hot coffee warm and leak free, while a plastic party cup would quickly degrade and melt.

Foam Cups

Expanded polystyrene, aka “Styrofoam”, seems like a natural choice for holding beverages. Styrofoam is cheap, can hold up longer than paper, and offer good insulation for hot or cold beverages. Coupled with low cost, these properties make polystyrene a popular choice for many restaurants and businesses.

Unfortunately foam cups carry some of the worst environmental and health concerns of all disposable products. When exposed to high heat, polystyrene can leech small amounts of styrene into food or drink. Styrene is considered a probable carcinogen in humans. Moreover, polystyrene takes an enormous toll on the environment. By volume, polystyrene takes up an estimated 25-30 percent of space in the world’s landfills and takes 500 years or more to break down. To make matters worse, most recycling companies don’t accept polystyrene.

At the end of the day, if you or your company is concerned about personal health, sustainability, or the environment, polystyrene products are best avoided.

Plastic Cups

Party Cups:

The iconic red party cup is a staple of gatherings everywhere. It might come as a surprise that these cups are actually made of the same chemical material as foam cups: polystyrene. Polystyrene is of course valued for its affordability, making these cups quite cheap. Unfortunately, this also means that they carry many of the same environmental and health drawbacks as foam.

Furthermore, these cups lack the durability and insulating properties of Styrofoam meaning that they can dent and crack easily and are not suited for hot beverages. One positive of party cups is that they take up far less space, making them far more convenient to use in the home. It also means they will take up less space when they inevitably end up in the landfill.

PET Plastic Cups:

If you’ve ever drank bottled water, then you’re probably already familiar with PET plastic. In addition to being one of the main materials used to make water bottles, it is widely used for cups and other disposable packaging applications. PET is short for Polyethylene terephthalate, and it is also the polymer used to create polyester fabric.

PET offers greater durability than polystyrene, making it much better for long term storage applications (such as bottled water). Another benefit of PET is that it is one of the most widely accepted recyclable plastic. Despite this, most PET plastic isn’t recycled and continues to wreak havoc upon the environment. In reality, 7 out of 10 PET bottles are dumped into landfills, incinerated, or littered.

Another drawback of PET is that it can’t stand up to high heat. All PET cups on the market are designed exclusively for cold beverage applications. If you or your business needs cups for coffee, tea, or other hot beverages, PET isn’t the answer. However, because of its easily recyclable traits, it is better than other plastic cups in terms of sustainability.

Paper Cups

Poly-coated Paper

Many people wrongly assume that paper cups can safely and quickly break down after use. Unfortunately for our planet, this isn’t true. Many paper products, especially cups designed to hold hot beverages, are coated in a polyethylene plastic coating. This coating protects the paper from moisture and allows it to hold drinks like coffee and tea without leaking.

Unfortunately, this plastic coating also makes the cups far less environmentally friendly. Studies show that polyethylene coatings (like is found on most commercial coffee cups) do not biodegrade, slow the breakdown of the paper beneath, and shed microplastic fragments. Even when the paper cup itself breaks down; the poly coating will remain for hundreds of years.

Some recycling companies will accept poly coated paper products (which also include things like orange juice cartons), but many will not, so its best to check with your local recycling provider.

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