Paper tea cups are an environmentally friendly alternative to foam or plastic take-out cups, right? Not necessarily. In many ways, paper cups are just as bad or worse than foam cups. But why? As a restaurant owner, you may assume that you’re doing your part to help the environment by offering paper cups, but unless they are disposable eco-friendly cups, paper cups can’t be recycled or composted.

Let’s take a closer look at why paper cups are bad for the environment and some eco-friendly alternatives you can offer your customers.

Why Are Paper Cups Bad for the Environment?

Many people believe that paper cups are an environmentally friendly option for take-out, but this isn’t usually the case. 

Each year, more than 20 million trees are cut down just to produce these single-use cups. And every year, Americans throw away over 50 billion paper cups.

And these paper cups don’t typically degrade, nor can they be recycled. 

Are Paper Cups Biodegradable?

No, not usually. In most cases, a paper tea cup is made of more than just paper. These cups contain a plastic lining that won’t break down very easily.

Paper cups have these plastic liners for a reason – they allow the cup to hold hot liquid. Otherwise, paper cups would just leak, crumble and fall apart.

While useful, they make it impossible to biodegrade or even recycle these cups properly. If you do try to compost a plastic-lined paper cup, the finished compost will be contaminated with microplastics and other chemicals.

Can You Recycle Paper Cups?

A typical disposal tea cup can’t usually be recycled.


Because these cups are usually lined with problematic plastics that can’t be recycled. These disposable cups have a lining made of plastic resin or polyethylene. 

Most recycling centers can’t process plastic-lined cups and containers. In fact, 99.75% of coffee cups can’t be recycled.

It’s not the paper cup itself, but the plastic lining that makes these cups unable to be recycled or composted.

What are Biodegradable Cups Made Of?

Conventional paper tea cups have plastic liners to prevent leaks, but these liners are made from petroleum, which is not a renewable or biodegradable resource.

Biodegradable paper cups, on the other hand, still have waterproof liners, but they’re made from bioplastics. 

Bioplastics can be derived from:

  • Potatoes
  • Corn
  • Sugarcane

All of these materials are renewable and biodegradable. In addition, industrial composting facilities can break down these bioplastics, which can then be used to enrich the soil used to grow crops.

The three most commonly used bioplastics in 2023 are:

  • Polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from fermented starch obtained from sugarcane, sugar beet, corn or cassava.
  • Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), which are extracted from bacteria.
  • Thermoplastic starches (TPS), which are made by heating the starch from plant materials and mixing it with plasticizers.

In many cases, biodegradable paper cups will have PLA liners.

3 Alternatives to Conventional Take-Out Paper Cups

Paper cups are a common, affordable option for restaurant owners, but they’re not the only option. We offer multiple cup options to fit the needs of all restaurant owners and their patrons.

Note: Paper cups from sustainable sources are still a good option for many restaurants, and they are often biodegradable.

1. Reusable Cups

An alternative to plastic cups is reusable cups. Consumers will pay more for these cups, but if the person uses them 20 - 100 times, it can have a significant environmental impact. If you sell hot tea or coffee, a person may use the same cup 3+ times per day – making it easy to reach the 20-cup usage in less than a week.

You can also allow your customers to bring their own cups.

Offering a slight discount for customers who bring in their own reusable cups will help more of your customers adopt the reusable habit. Your restaurant will benefit from reusable cups by:

  • Saving money on buying non-reusable options
  • Offering to sell branded reusable cups (great for marketing)
  • Appealing to the eco-friendly community

If you have a lot of regulars who frequent your restaurant, they’ll often be willing to support your business by buying reusable cups from you. When these individuals go to work or bring the cup home, it will continue to promote your brand.

2. Recyclable Paper Cups and Lids

Disposable eco friendly cups are available, but you just need to be confident that the cup doesn’t have a plastic liner inside of it that impacts your ability to recycle the cup. You need to do your due diligence when ordering recyclable paper cups to ensure that they’re:

  • Easy to recycle
  • Truly eco-friendly

A lot of manufacturers are offering recyclable cup options to meet the rising demand of consumers who want to have a lower impact on the environment.

3. Eco-Friendly Coffee Cups

Decorative disposable coffee cups are great alternatives to plastic cups. When sourcing your eco-friendly cups, you need to follow many of the same tips as in the last section. The cups, and lids, should:

  • Be constructed with renewable or recycled materials
  • Tested to learn if they’re compostable and will break down in landfills (or your own compost bin)

Bamboo is a great material for coffee cups because bamboo is a sustainable material that will compost and not stay in landfills for hundreds of years. You'll find plenty of cold and hot cup options in our inventory that offer 100% compostable options, made from bamboo.

How Much Do Biodegradable and Recyclable Cups Cost?

Our catalog of biodegradable and disposable tea cups (hot cups, coffee cups, and more) come in a wide range of prices:

  • 500 count of 12-ounce double wall hot cups costs $79.99, or $0.16 per cup
  • 500 count of 10-ounce double wall hot cups costs $74.49, or $0.15 per cup
  • 1000 count of 12-ounce bamboo cold cups costs $139.99, or $0.14 per cup

Pricing is subject to change at any time, but cup pricing is based on numerous factors: cup size, style, total cups ordered, and material. If you order larger quantities, you can expect to pay less for your cups.

Where to Buy Biodegradable Cups

If your restaurant wants to take a step toward being more eco-friendly and producing less waste, we can help. We work with suppliers from around the country to provide you with disposable tea cup, bags, hot cups, containers, lids, trays, bowls, utensils, and more.

Click here to view our entire catalog of eco-friendly products.