The paper-cup: Friend or foe?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
The paper-cup: Friend or foe?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Securing food safety and hygiene in the post-pandemic world while delivering on a low carbon future with a lower environmental impact than reusables

That the simple paper cup has played a major part in protecting lives and livelihoods is undisputed. Why then do some policymakers today, despite the clear science, attempt to ban all single-use paper-based food packaging, when the up-to-date evidence shows it delivers the best environmental outcome in-store use in quick service restaurants in Europe, outperforming reusables?

During the early days of the 20th century, drinking water became increasingly popular thanks to the emergence of the temperance movement in the US. Communal cups or dippers made from metal, wood, or ceramic were used to drink the water, but such sharing posed public health dangers from cross-contamination. It was in response to these concerns that a Boston lawyer named Lawrence Luellen crafted a disposable two-piece cup from paper in 1907.

Simultaneously, Dr. Samuel Crumbine, one of the founding fathers of modern public health, started campaigning against the use of common cups as part of his fight against tuberculosis. One anecdote tells how as he was riding on a train across Kansas, he noticed a number of passengers with tuberculosis drinking water from a common drinking cup which was shared with healthy passengers. When a healthy little girl drank from the cup, the story goes that Dr. Crumbine jumped out of his seat, snatched the container from the wall, and declared that both the common cup and basin would be banned by the state. And they were.

In 1918, the Spanish flu killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world. In the US, nearly one in three people was infected, and the epidemic claimed over half a million lives. This fear of disease-causing germs brought even greater interest in disposable paper cups.

In 1942, a study by the Massachusetts State College found that using single-service paper cups cost less than sanitizing glassware for re-use in hospitals, which was the practice at the time. These findings, as well as the decrease in the risk of cross-infection, led to the use of the paper alternative in hospitals.

Over the last several decades, Europe has become a world leader in the development of paper cups. Today’s European paper cup is made from renewable wood fibre, sourced from sustainably managed European forests where more trees are planted than harvested. The pulp used in paper cups is produced from thin pulpwood, which is harvested from forests to enable strongest trees to grow to produce logs for construction and the furniture industry, and also from the by-products of the wood used for these industries.

Paper cups are also part of the circular economy, being easy to recycle. Paper cups are made of fibre-based packaging materials where fibres can be recycled several times, while the very thin polymeric coating, used to make today’s cups leak-proof for hot and cold drinks, can be captured and recycled or used to generate electricity. Furthermore, the industry is working on reducing the polymeric content from under 15% today to less than 10%.

Manufacturing improvements in the paper value chain have had a dramatic impact on the sustainability of paper-based food packaging. Indeed, a recent study by the Danish environmental consultancy Ramboll, comparing the environmental impact of paper-based single-use packaging and multi-use systems for in-store use in quick service restaurants in Europe, found that the single-use system shows significant benefits for reducing CO2 emissions. In fact, in the baseline scenario, the polypropylene-based multi-use system was responsible for generating 2.7 times more CO2 emissions than the paper-based single-use system. The single main contributor to climate change in the multi-use baseline scenario is the electricity related to the washing process. Overall, the use phase accounts for 83% of the total impact. The Ramboll study’s results, which were independently certified to ISO and TÜV standards, provide the necessary input for us to be able to drive an evidence-based approach to circularity.

For freshwater consumption, there are also significant environmental benefits for the single-use system. The multi-use system used 3.6 times the amount of freshwater in the baseline scenario. This itself is a major concern, especially for the water stressed areas of Europe, which are often the ones most frequented by tourists.

In line with the very reason paper cups were first invented, paper-based tableware also continues to contribute to food safety and hygiene, even in the most modern of societies. Reflecting on the significant impacts of the global pandemic on Europe’s foodservice sector, the European Environment Agency was clear that disposable packaging has “played an important role in preventing the spread of COVID-19” in a briefing published in November 2020. A recent study commissioned by the paper packaging industry and carried out by Professor David McDowell from the Ulster University also found out that reusable items present a higher risk of cross-contamination, which could easily lead to "increased risks of human foodborne illness".

There is therefore no doubt that the simple paper cup has always played a major part in protecting lives and livelihoods. Scientific evidence clearly shows that the single-use paper-based food packaging delivers the best environmental outcome while securing food safety and hygiene. It should therefore be recognised by policymakers as a sustainable alternative to plastic packaging.

We, members of the European Paper Packaging Alliance, support the objectives of the EU Green Deal and are committed to achieving a more sustainable future. Our industry stands ready to play its part in continuing to deliver low carbon, renewable food packaging sourced from sustainable managed forests. We are willing to work with the entire food value chain to enable a sustainable change and our only ask for the EU is to support innovation.

Eric Le Lay

President, European Paper Packaging Alliance

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