Is Paper Really Greener?

When it comes to finding the best cups for your business, different materials bring different benefits. Starbucks uses high-quality paper cups with cardboard sleeves, while Dunkin’ Donuts uses high-quality insulated foam cups.

Comprehensive recycling programs are needed for both paper and foam.  But paper cups are not easy to recycle because of a polymer-based liner used to prevent hot liquids from leaking. Furthermore, average-weight paper cups with liners and cardboard sleeves can generate up to 379% more solid waste by weight than comparable polystyrene foam cups.[i]

Starbucks produces more than four billion cups of coffee globally and only a very small percentage of those cups currently end up recycled. Most recycling companies are not equipped to separate the lining used in the paper hot cups. However, according to Starbucks’ annual global responsibility report, Starbucks pledges to have 100% of its cups reusable or recyclable by 2015. Starbucks has been addressing the issue since 2008 with suppliers, manufacturers, recyclers, and government representatives at three Cup Summits (2009, 2010, and 2011).

According to the Chicago Tribune, consumer pressure is pushing for change from companies that use polystyrene foam cups. This pressure has caused food chains, like McDonalds, to test alternative products.

Dunkin’ Donuts tested alternative products, but quickly switched back to foam cups after customers complained that the paper cups were too hot to hold. And yet, a hot drink in a plastic-lined paper cup will have lost twice as much heat as the same drink in a foam cup after 10 minutes.  Dunkin’ Donuts is now exploring in-store foam cup recycling programs as well.[iii]

A polystyrene ban misses the underlying issue of waste and the need of comprehensive recycling programs. Polystyrene manufacturers encourage recycling programs and are innovating the way polystyrene is recycled.[ii]

1 Franklin Associates, Ltd. Final Peer-Reviewed Report: Life Cycle Inventory of Polystyrene Foam, Bleached Paperboard, and Corrugated Paperboard Foodservice Products (Prepared for The Polystyrene Packaging Council, March 2006).

2 Is Starbucks as Green as Its Logo? By Clare Leschin-Hoar, March 22, 2012;


Foam Cups vs Paper Cups