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Paper cup

A paper cup is a cup made out of paper and often lined with plastic or wax to prevent liquid from leaking out or soaking through the paper. It may be made of recycled paper and is widely used around the world.


Early in the 20th century, it was common to have shared glasses or dippers at water sources such as school faucets or water barrels in trains. This shared use caused public health concerns. One notable investigation into their use was Lafayette College biology professor Alvin Davison's study, published with the sensational title "Death in School Drinking Cups" in Technical World Magazine in August 1908, based on research carried out in Easton, Pennsylvania's public schools. The article was reprinted and distributed by the Massachusetts State Board of Health in November 1909.

Based on these concerns, and as paper goods (especially after the 1908 invention of the Dixie Cup) became cheaply and cleanly available, local bans were passed on the shared-use cup. One of the first railway companies to use disposable paper cups was the Lackawanna, which began using them in 1909. By 1917, the public glass had disappeared from railway carriages, replaced by paper cups even in jurisdictions where public glasses had yet to be banned.

Paper cups are also employed in hospitals for health reasons. As reported by France,in 1942 the Massachusetts State College found in one study that the cost of using washable glasses, re-used after being sanitized, was 1.6 times the cost of using single-service paper cups. These studies, as well as the reduction in the risk of cross-infection, encouraged the use of paper cups in hospitals.


Originally, paper cups for hot drinks were glued together and made waterproof by dropping a small amount of clay in the bottom of the cup, and then spinning at high speed so that clay would travel up the walls of the cup, making the paper water-resistant. However, this resulted in drinks smelling and tasting of cardboard.

Cups for cold drinks could not be treated in the same way, as condensation forms on the outside, then soaks into the board, making the cup unstable. To remedy this, cup manufacturers developed the technique of spraying both the inside and outside of the cup with wax. Both clay-coated and wax-coated cups disappeared with the invention of polyethylene (PE) coated cups; this process covers the surface of the board with a very thin layer of PE, not only waterproofing the board, but also allowing seams to be welded together. These water resistant PE coatings do not prevent the cup being recycled, and there are many paper mills who will recycle paper cups into material suitable for copier paper, kitchen roll and toilet rolls. However, as noted below, recycling of paper cups is uncommon.

Environmental impact

Most paper cups are designed for a single use and then disposal or recycling. A life cycle inventory of a comparison of paper vs plastic cups shows environmental effects of both with no clear winner.

A study of one paper coffee cup with sleeve (16 ounce) shows that the CO2 emissions is about .11 kilograms (.25 pounds) per cup with sleeve - including paper from trees, materials, production and shipping.The loss of natural habitat potential from the paper coffee cup (16 ounce) with a sleeve is estimated to be .09 square meters (.93 square feet).

Over 6.5 million trees were cut down to make 16 billion paper cups used by US consumers in 2006, using 4 billion gallons of water and resulting in 253 million pounds of waste.

Very little recycled paper is used to make paper cups because of contamination concerns and regulations. Because most paper cups are coated with plastic, both composting and recycling of paper cups is uncommon.

Although paper cups are made from renewable resources (wood chips 95% by weight), paper products in a landfill may not decompose, or may release methane if decomposed anaerobically. The manufacture of paper usually requires inorganic chemicals and creates water effluents.

Paper cups may consume more non-renewable resources than cups made of polystyrene foam (whose only significant effluent is pentane). A number of cities—including Portland, Oregon -- have banned XPS foam cups in take-out and fast food restaurants.

PE is a petroleum based coating on paper cups that can slow down the process of biodegrading. PLA is a biodegradable bio-plastic coating used on some paper cups. PLA is a renewable resource and makes paper cups more compostable, whereas PE is not renewable and is not compostable.


Paper cups may have various types of lids. The paper cups that are used as containers for yogurt, for example, generally have two types of lids: a press-on, resealable, lid (used for large "family size" containers, 250 ml to 1000 ml, where not all of the yogurt may be consumed at any one time and thus the ability to re-close the container is required) and heat-seal foil lids (used for small "single serving" containers, 150 ml to 200 ml).

Paper cup lids may be used when one wants to be careful not to spill, for instance when it is filled with a hot beverage.

The most common types of paper cup lids are straw slot lids for cold drinks, with a perforated cross in the middle of the lid allowing a straw to be inserted. A second type is the hot drink lid; originally just vented to allow steam to escape, this has mainly been superseded by the sip-through lid. Having a tight-fitting lid is essential to making the hot drink safe. Most lids are made from polystyrene. Paper lids are available for soup containers, but due to their construction they are relatively expensive and so are only seen at the premium end of the market.