Bio Paper Cups: Shifting Trends in the Paper Cup Industry

Changing Trends

For years, plastic cups have dominated the paper cup industry. But, despite their convenience and cheap cost, they cause more harm than good to the environment. UNEP estimates plastic waste will account for 12 million metric tonnes of litter by 2050 if we don’t act.

Plastic cups rank as one of the worst single-use plastics. Because of the rising environmental concerns about these plastics, interest has shifted to the promotion of sustainable packaging. Bio paper cups have emerged as a more eco-friendly alternative to single-use containers.

Paper cups have always relied on a synthetic or fossil fuel barrier coating to prevent water and oxygen permeation. However, petroleum-based or polyethene coatings increase pressure on fossil-oil reserves. They also don’t biodegrade and make paper cups unrecyclable.

For sustainability, there’s now a massive move from polyethene coatings to a bio-polymer. Biopolymers get derived from renewable sources such as corn starch and sugar cane pulp. They even offer environmental benefits such as non-toxicity, biodegradability, biocompatibility and recyclability.

Biopolymers have successfully featured for paper and paper board coatings. In the paper cup industry polysaccharides and polylactic acid ( PLA ) are the most dominant bio coatings. It’s the PLA coating that has redefined a standard paper cup to a bio-paper cup.

Reviewing the Shift to Bio Paper Cups

polyethylene granules
Plastic polyethylene

PE Problems

Polyethelene is the most popular plastic, and it’s dominance cuts across all the industries. It’s actual production outstrips demand, and by the end of 2020, it may hit over 3 million tonnes in overproduction.

50 % of produced plastic goes into food retail and packaging industry. People prefer it for its affordable cost, ease of processing into packaging materials and versatile properties.

Polyethelene production contributes to fossil fuel depletion. Around 6-8 % of extracted petroleum goes into the making of polyethene. Not to forget plastic productions adds over 800 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases to the environment.

Since the 1950s, 90 % of used plastic and PE (polyethelene) coated cups end in landfills. As a result, most of the landfills comprise 50 % plastic. We currently cannot cope anymore with plastic waste or any non-compostable material.

If current production continues without new waste management practises, then by 2050 we may face over 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste in landfills. Meanwhile, disposal emissions may reach 56 gigatons.

PE paper cups are also hard to recycle. And when they end up in landfills, they emit 253 g of CO 2 per kg of plastic. Besides, most degrading plastics leach chemicals into the soil and the seas, and risk both marine and human life.

The Shift to PLA or Bio Paper Cups

Given the many risks of PE, the switch over to biodegradable options is not a surprise. Many coffee brands now opt for the bio paper cup for it can compost, and it’s simple to recycle.

Polylactic acid PLA

Manufacturers use paper boards and the organic corn starch coating to make a bio-paper cup. Since the corn starch comes from renewable sources, dependence on fossil fuel plastics reduces.

The primary difference between PLA and PE is their oxygen and nitrogen content. PLA, as a natural polymer possesses oxygen and nitrogen that facilitates degradation. These organic-based plastics are a more viable alternative to disposable cups and leave the least carbon imprint.

In the packaging industry, there’s more interest in bio-based plastics. Besides coating paper cups, PLA plastic features in the production of food containers, diapers, egg cartons, mulch films and toys and more products.

Causes of the Shift to Bio Paper Cup

Recycling Problems

The 10 % of paper cups that find their way into municipal waste streams may cause complications in a recycling system. It’s possible to recycle bioplastics several times without losing its original properties, but it can complicate the recycling process.

Nonetheless, the mechanical process of separating the coating from the cup isn’t feasible. Previously, some recycling plants would reject coated cups because of recycling challenges.

Mechanical recycling of biopolymers like PLA is attainable, but disposal and poor waste management are the current challenges. As such, may paper cups may still find their way to the environment.


Unlike petroleum-based polymers, bio paper cups and biodegradable products are compostable. Like leaves and other natural matter, these bio paper cups can decompose into carbon and different soil macronutrients.

In the UK, there are over 300 sites that can help to compost over 2 million tonnes of municipal waste. These sites use aerobic biodegradation techniques to generate organic manure for the soil.

Composting makes bio paper cups more preferred in the industry. For paper cups and biodegradable containers dirtied with foods, practical recycling is impossible. Thus, composting is a more reliable way to reduce municipal waste and protect the environments. As biopolymers continue to replace polyethene in food packaging, composting may be the ultimate answer for waste management.

Unlike incineration and landfilling, composting doesn’t increase greenhouse emissions. It follows a process already existing in the biological carbon cycle, and it can receive over 50% of municipal waste.

Increased Environmental Awareness

Enviromental Awareness
Recyclability & compostability

more people become eco-conscious, the demand for compostable products will likely increase. Today, more individuals base their buying decisions on the environmental attributes of a product.

Products packed or labelled as sustainable continues to flourish across many industries. While sustainable products comprise only 16 % of the market, they account for over than half of the growth in the market.

Research shows paper cups, plates, coffee, napkins, facial tissue, weight control, napkins and bottle juices are some of the products marketed as sustainable.

Consumers’ environmental awareness influences buying decisions in several ways. It influences responsibility and controls a customer’s behaviour when purchasing. Awareness further motivates people to be more environmentally friendly.

Thus, people who are more informed of the critical environmental problems are more likely to buy green products. It’s for these reasons; bio paper cups attract more interest and demand compared to conventional disposable cups.

Bio Paper Cups Availability and Cost Analysis

PLA remains as the most viable alternative to polyethene. The polymer can breakdown into H20, CO2, and CH4 particles under anaerobic conditions.

Its raw materials are readily available but are meagre compared to the mass-produced polyethene. Under high demand or total elimination of polyethene, scarce land may limit large scale production of PLA.

PLA has low toxicity levels, good mechanical strength and degrades faster compared to conventional plastic. It, therefore, ranks as the most viable option for a cleaner environment.

However, PLA production levels are way below PE, PP and PET. Lactic acid is not as accessible compared to ethylene, the raw material of PE. Besides, lactic acid needs an additional step of converting it to lactide before forming PLA. The longer PLA production processes may contribute to a slightly higher cost.

The efficient way to analyse PLA cost vs PE is to consider their environmental impact. PLA despite it’s slightly higher production cost is more cost-effective in the long run. PLA’s less carbon imprint and compostability leads to a cleaner atmosphere and reduces plastic waste in the environment.

of BioPlastics in the Paper Cup Industry

Reusable paper cups pose as a better alternative to single-use plastics, but they aren’t as favoured as anticipated. More people are now eco-conscious, but the reusable cup lacks in offering convenience.

PLA Compostable material
Compostable & biodegradable

That means PLA will continue to lead the paper cup industry. With the recycling and biodegrading limits of PE coated paper cups, more focus will continue drifting to compostables.

PLA supply may be limited, but it only serves as a barrier in a paper cup. Most of the bio paper cup comprises a renewable paper board that is readily available — even the increasing bans on non-recyclable products only open the road for more compostable products.


Bioproducts play an exceptional role in the future of the paper cup industry. They are currently the safest bet to veer off from single-use plastic, and they have minimal impact on the environment.

Most industrial innovations now focus on the production of more sustainable bio-based materials. When toxicity and compostability are the points of contention, only PLA materials make the grade.

Corn starch and sugar-based materials may be costlier than plastic. But that cost is insignificant when long term viability is in demand. PLA products like bio paper cups are more comfortable to recycle, compost and come from renewable materials.

The prospects of starch and corn-based products in paper cup industry look brighter. There’s now more ongoing research into making bio paper cups more cost-effective and accessible to weed out polyethene.



Reference sites
Further information

Single-use plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability, UN Environment

Bio-Based Coatings for Paper Applications; Rastogi-Vibhore Kumar- Samyn- Pieter

Starch-Based Bio-Plastics: The Future of Sustainable Packaging

Ravindra Gadhave-Abhijit Das-Prakash Mahanwar-Pradeep Gadekar


Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint – But That Isn’t The Whole Story

Christopher Joyce

Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet

Lisa Anne Hamilton and Steven Feit

Plastic waste as a fuel – CO2-neutral or not?. Energy & Environmental Science 

Eriksson, Ola & Finnveden, Göran.

Biodegradable Paper Cups – Guilt Free Coffee – Who Should Take the Responsibility?

Biodegradable and compostable alternatives to conventional plastics

J Song-R Murphy-R Narayan-G Davies

Research on IRI Purchasing Data

Randi Kronthal, SaccoTensie Whelan™%202019.pdf

Why consumers buy green

Darnall, Nicole & Ponting, Cerys & Vazquez-Brust, Diego

The Future of Plastic

Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups

House of CommonsEnvironmental Audit Committee