Coffee cups have been in the news lately, but for all the wrong reasons.

In the US, Starbucks stirred up a little controversy with its holiday-themed cups that, as Brenna Houck at Eater reports, were void of Christmas symbolism or any symbols at all. This was to “usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories,” Houck quotes a Starbucks vice president as saying.

No matter your opinion on this year’s Starbucks holiday cup, there’s a bigger question that people are missing, and it’s not whether the chain is anti-Christmas: What is going to happen to all those red cups when people are done with them?

More generally, what happens to any foam or paper coffee cup once your brew is gone? Is it recycled, is it biodegradable?

By understanding the coffee cup lifecycle and where waste like this goes, you can do your part to usher in a greener world.

Here is what you need to know about the current state of disposable coffee cups, where those cups go, and how we as a coffee-drinking planet can do better.

The Beginning of the Coffee Lifecycle: The Stages of Coffee Cup Production

Coffee Cup Assembly

There are, broadly, two types of disposable cups: Paper and foam. The latter is far less popular today than it was.

Green Your Cup, an organization that promotes the use of recyclable cups, has an informative page on how most paper cups are assembled and produced:

  1. These cups are typically sourced from generic, flattened-down cardboard.
  2. A layer of plastic is stuck on with glue.
  3. That layer “is bonded very strongly to the paper” and “provides the waterproof layer to the cup. Without this layer the cup would leak and the cup would go soft.”

The site points out that manufacturers used to use a wax coating to seal the inside of the cup, but it made everyone’s coffee taste bad.

Speaking of discontinued practices, foam cups have largely been abandoned because foam is so harmful to our bodies and to the environment. The Travels of BlueMenpachi wrote a post a few years ago about how these cups are made, back when the debate over using foam products was still alive. It’s useful to keep in mind if you come across a cafe or retailer that sells coffee in foam cups.

  1. Plastic foam pellets go through a temperature-altering process to shape them as necessary. Pellets can grow to 40 or 50 times their original size when heated.
  2. From there, the foam is molded into cups, plates, containers and other such items.

Printing and Large-Scale Manufacturing

After the paper or foam cup is shaped, it’s ready for printing and a little more insulation. Seattle-based organization Sustainability Is Sexy points out that the cup will receive yet another layer of plastic, a coating of polyethylene, at this point.

The site also mentions that manufacturing is “extremely resource intensive” because the paper pulp is made by breaking down wood chips, which are cleaned for impurities. “The resulting paper pulp is dried and the fibers are pressed together to make paper. The entire process requires a substantial amount of water, energy … and a lot of trees.”


The Next Stage of the Coffee Cup Lifecycle: Is Recycling Possible?