Single-Use Disposable Cups Are Stacking Up Critics – What's Next?

Charles Willard, Research Associate

Single-use paper cups are becoming a growing target of public scrutiny. Large brands that rely on these disposable items, namely fast food joints and coffee shops, have larger environmental concerns with their resource-intensive international supply networks; however, there is no denying that cups are one of the most frequent reminders of a brand’s name. Jim Hanna, Starbucks' director of environmental impact, said that "Cups are our icon, our billboard, part of the ethos of the company. Customers have this great experience of interacting with store partners and the beverage. Then, when they're finished, they say, 'Now what do I do with my cup?'" 

Single-use cups consist of recyclable virgin paper but contain a tightly packed barrier layer of polyethylene that cannot be separated by density. While a few specialty recycling plants (primarily in the U.K.) have been introduced over the past five years, the economic viability of the process is still largely unproven and faces the barrier of creating an entirely separate collection infrastructure and reeducating consumers. In every practical sense, the current version of single-use plastic cups is unrecyclable, with no solution in most regions for the foreseeable future. 

In response to the large quantities of waste produced by single-use cups, countries are beginning to take legislative action: In India, the National Capital Region, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Chennai have all banned single-use cups, with noncompliance penalties ranging from fines to jail time. The European Commission's restrictions on single-use plastic items include provisions to limit and eventually ban single-use cups as alternatives become available. In the regions already effected by restrictions or bans, companies have temporarily transitioned to unlined paperboard cups, but poor performance has created a demand for more suitable replacements. 

In anticipation of more widespread restrictions and in an attempt to appear at the forefront of sustainability, Starbucks and McDonald's collaborated to host the NextGen Cup Challenge. This challenge encouraged (primarily small) companies to submit designs of biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, and reusable cups for consideration. The three winning designs (early-stage, mid-stage, and late-stage) will receive a small funding reward, and the late-stage winner will be considered for adoption by not only McDonald's and Starbucks but also consortium partners Yum! Brands and The Coca-Cola Company. Judges have already narrowed the list down to 29 designs and plan to declare the contest winners by February. The chart below reveals that, while a reasonable percentage of designers are proposing compostable or reusable options, the majority of pitches are either biodegradable or recyclable. 

Lux-Research-Single-Use-Cups

In the transition away from traditional single-use cups, retaining a familiar consumer experience while altering sustainability will be key.Kotkamills' Game Changer design does just that: While the biopolymer composite can be recycled alongside standard paper recycling streams, it has the same look and feel as the current cup. On the other hand, Hanpak'sButterflyCup attempts to reinvent the consumer's drinking experience with a radically different design and runs the risk of consumer rejection, especially among those who have little interest in this sustainability movement. 

Starbucks has gained a reputation of making aggressive sustainability pledges and failing to deliver: In 2008, the company pledged to transition to 100% recyclable paper cups and sell 25% of its drinks in reusable cups by 2015. More than 10 years later, no significant progress has been made. So, what makes this time different? While this challenge may technically be voluntary, impending legislation will soon begin forcing companies around the world to reinvent the way they package products. We fully expect Starbucks, McDonald's, The Coca-Cola Company, and Yum!, as well their competitors, to begin pursuing alternative product designs, spearheaded by the winner of the NextGen Cup Challenge.