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Paper Cups: A Responsible Consumer Choice


Note: This article first appeared on the AF&PA Blog at afandpa.org/media/blog.

Enjoying a cup of coffee or tea on the go can help make our busy lifestyles a little more tolerable. It affords busy parents a moment of nirvana as they rush to deliver kids to school and get to work on time, and provides everyone the option to enjoy their beverage of choice even if they don't have time to finish it in store. The facts support a compelling case that the makers of paper cups—the paper and wood products industry—have a long commitment to sustainable business practices that protect the environment, spur innovation and advance recycling.

The first thing that sets paper cups apart from other cups: They are made from sustainably managed, renewable materials whose cultivation benefits the environment. Paper products, like cups and paper-based packaging, are made with wood fiber from sustainably-managed forests, which is a 100 percent renewable resource.

The wood fiber used to make paper products like cups comes from forests that are managed using sustainable management practices. The US currently grows more wood than it harvests, and there are an estimated 20 percent more trees in the US now than in 1970.

The market for wood fiber to make products like paper cups ultimately has a beneficial environmental impact. The need for working forests to supply wood fiber incentivizes the planting and replanting of trees after harvest and keeping land in forests. Working forests also capture and store carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. In 2016 alone, US forests and wood products captured and stored an estimated 12.6 percent of all carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel consumption in the US.

Paper cups not only come from a sustainable raw material, they are made using sustainable manufacturing practices. Through an AF&PA initiative called Better Practices, Better Planet 2020, the paper and wood products industry has committed to utilizing sustainable manufacturing practices to protect the environment and ensure our resources will be as available for future generations as they are today.

Byproducts of manufacturing, such as chips, barks and sticks, are actually used to generate bioenergy that powers mills. Altogether, about two-thirds of the power used to make paper cups and other wood and paper products comes from renewable, carbon-neutral biomass and not from fossil fuels.
The commitment to efficiency extends to energy and water usage as well. Paper and wood products manufacturers have improved their purchased energy efficiency by 11.6 percent from 2005 to 2016 and utilize renewable, carbon-neutral biomass to provide much of the power for their facilities.

The industry also meets a high standard for water usage. Approximately 90 percent of the water used in manufacturing paper products is returned to the waterway after being treated. Before it is returned, pulp and paper mills reuse the water they withdraw at least 10 times. Finally, all water discharged from paper mills must meet stringent requirements of the Clean Water Act as well as state water quality standards.

Paper cups offer consumers a convenient, clean and hygienic product made with sustainable manufacturing practices from a renewable resource which can be recycled. Technological innovations are continuously allowing the industry to access and recycle more paper-based products and turn them into new products. Used paper cups are accepted by mills that have the capability to repulp them. The fiber from recycled cups and containers is then used to make tissue, de-inked market pulp (which goes into a number of paper products) and recycled paperboard.

Paper does not pose a threat to wildlife and human health and is not among the top 10 materials found in beach litter. According to the Environmental Protect Agency, "one-third to two-thirds of the debris we catalogue on beaches comes from single-use, disposable plastic packaging…" In short, paper is not the cause of the litter and marine debris problem communities are trying to solve.

Paper products, including paper cups, do a lot more than hold food and beverages or package other materials. Paper products keep lands forested, store carbon, are manufactured with renewable, carbon-neutral energy, and support our nation's recycling system. Consumers should enjoy their moment of nirvana from a paper cup guilt-free.

About the author:
Webber serves as Executive Director of Packaging at the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA). He leads the AF&PA Packaging Sectors, which includes containerboard and paperboard producers.


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