Major Producer Attempts to Greenwash Disposable Coffee Cups

 By Jim Clugger


Littorary - green cup with recycling symbol in cluster of other cups


It’s no secret that certain companies create environmental problems in their quest for profits. However, realizing a profit at the expense of the environment is becoming an existential risk to many businesses.

Contemporary consumers are more keenly aware than ever of the environmental impacts their consumption patterns create, which is why companies are eager to burnish their environmental reputations. Companies that rely on unsustainable processes to create profit sometimes go so far as to greenwash their activities rather than pivot to more sustainable practices.

A particularly egregious example of greenwashing in the form of a report by Finland-based Huhtamaki, a global food packaging supplier, compares their disposable coffee cups to reusable alternatives. “Key findings” from the report are misleading at best and entirely false at worst, relying on bad assumptions that lead to a skewed analysis and cherry-picked conclusions.

The report is based on a climate impact life cycle analysis (LCA) performed by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, which was funded by Huhtamaki and the Finnish paperboard manufacturer Stora Enso. The study assumes Europe as the functional geographic region.

The Huhtamaki study focused on two scenarios for disposable cups: 1) in the café where it is assumed cups will be used without a lid; disposable cups are compared with ceramic mugs and 2) as a takeaway where the cups are used with a lid; disposable cups are compared with plastic and steel reusable mugs.

Let’s take a closer look at the key findings.

  1. “Like all food packaging, the carbon footprint of a paper cup is small compared to the food itself.”

This statement is only true if the food used for comparison is carbon intensive to make, like a café latte, which is precisely what Huhtamaki used. In the case of a latte, the lidded disposable cup accounts for 9% of the overall carbon footprint. If a less carbon intensive beverage is consumed, like a French press coffee, then the impact of the disposable cup rises to 26%. It rises further to a whopping 99% for a beverage as benign as water even without the lid.

The climate impact of disposable cups can be a significant portion of the total impact of beverage consumption.

  1. “In most every-day scenarios, a paper cup has the lowest carbon footprint and is always a hygienic choice.”

This statement does not follow from the data. Rather, the data shows that the climate impact over the lifetime of an efficiently washed ceramic mug outperforms a disposable paper cup at current recycling rates and a reusable takeaway mug outperforms a disposable paper cup, an interpretation confirmed by a United Nations report.

A paper cup consistently has a higher carbon footprint in everyday scenarios.

Research from the India Institute of Technology has shown that plastic lined paper cups can release 25,000 microplastic particles into a cup of coffee.

Hardly hygienic.

  1. “Recycling drives lower greenhouse gas emissions.”

On its face, this statement is likely true. However, in the context of the report, the entire discussion around recycling is misleading.

For disposable paper cups to perform better than their reusable counterparts, Huhtamaki assumes an 80% recycling rate, while reporting current recycling rates are just 36% for similar cups in Europe.

The report does not propose how the recycling rate can be increased from 36% to 80%, but a response to Footprint from Richard Ali, Sustainability Director for Huhtamaki, suggests it is the responsibility of consumers, government, and other corporations to deal with the negative environmental impacts of Huhtamaki’s products.

Richard states, “While the study used European figures, there are clear implications for the UK, where cup-shaped coated paper has become a whipping boy for the gaps in the recycling infrastructure.” He goes on to say, “we would hope that the UK can get to a point where its recycling systems become more forward looking and a Recycling Superhighway is a reality.”

Apparently, the solution according to Huhtamaki is to let others figure out how to handle all the wasteful product that Huhtamaki and their ilk are producing.

We suggest an alternate approach.

Huhtamaki knows their products and customers better than anyone. They are in the best position to partner with collectors and recyclers to reclaim any value in their product after it has been used. If an 80% recycling rate is indeed economically viable, then Huhtamaki should make it happen.

  1. ”Paper cups are always the best choice for the climate if ceramic alternatives aren’t washed efficiently.”

For this claim to be credible, Huhtamaki needs to reveal how they arrived at their numbers. There are ample studies by reputable organizations such as the University of Victoria, The Royal Institute of Technology, and Recycle Quebec that show ceramic cups have a significantly lower lifetime climate impact than disposable paper cups.

As Carl Sagan put it, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Without the evidence to back it up, Huhtamaki’s claim should be dismissed.

Why is it important to critique the key findings in Huhtamaki’s report?

At Littorary, one of our founding values is to create product that reduces environmental impact. We have a particular focus on reducing plastic waste and climate impact through better product design and partnerships with organizations like Climate Neutral. Our decisions are based on peer reviewed scientific findings and unbiased reports.

The key findings in the Huhtamaki report are clearly biased. Bad assumptions and cherry-picked conclusions remove the findings from the reality presented by the data. The flawed guidance was spread by a press release and annual report. The findings have been regurgitated by press outlets without so much as an ounce of skepticism.

Care for the environment is so very vital, but it is also complicated. We applaud companies that take their commitments to our shared ecosystem seriously but decry companies that publish specious studies and findings in a self-serving effort to greenwash environmental impacts. False and misleading information causes confusion and gets in the way of sorely needed progress.

Our key finding: the Huhtamaki report isn’t worth the recycled paper it’s printed on but needs to be tossed into the trash bin along with the use of disposable cups. The overwhelming evidence on the subject is the same now as it has been for the last 3 decades; environmentally conscious consumers should drink their coffee from a reusable cup.

Our solution is to create a compelling alternative to single-use products, particularly as it relates to hot or chilled beverages like coffee and tea. A reusable non-plastic product can help salve the environmental wounds created by the overproduction of wasteful single-use products.

Littorary is committed to making durable and sophisticated products that rival the convenience of plastics without the environmental burden. We believe technology and design innovations can revolutionize how Americans and the world consume products in concert with the health of the environment. Please stay tuned to our website, blog, and upcoming Kickstarter page as we unveil a product fully capable of providing the convenience and sustainability that will consign the concept of disposable plastics to the garbage heap of history.

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