SINGAPORE: Given a choice between grabbing their caffeine fix in a plastic, foam or paper cup at a coffee shop, one in two here would pick paper as having the least negative impact on the environment, according to a survey of 1,000 respondents.
But they could be wrong.
In some respects, foam cups are less damaging to the environment than paper cups as they are made with fewer resources, experts told the Channel NewsAsia programme Trash Trail, which also conducted the survey on people's perceptions.
But what about the popular belief that paper cups, unlike foam, can be recycled? In reality, that is often not the case - at least in Singapore.
If you really want to reduce the environmental cost of your daily cuppa, however, the best way remains to bring your own mug or tumbler. Here are eight reasons why you should ditch the disposables:
1. Contrary to popular belief, used paper cups cannot be recycled here. One of the reasons is hygiene, according to one of Singapore’s largest paper recycling facilities, Sembcorp Tay Paper.
“In fact, you’ve got to pay me to dispose of (soiled cups),” said Mr Emmanuel Tay, Tay Paper’s commercial analyst.
WATCH: The real facts about disposable cups (2:15)
But even if you properly washed those used cups before putting them in the recycle bin, Mr Tay said that he still would have to send paper cups to an overseas recycling facility.
He explained that only 10 per cent of the paper mills in Asia are able to process the laminated or wax linings that help make the cup water-resistant. None of them are in Singapore.
Boutique cup maker Mr Arun Kumar of Dillic Packaging also pointed out that the distinct recycling logo found on plastic lids and paper cup sleeves mean that only these components are recyclable, and not the entire cup itself.
2. Likewise, while technology to recycle Styrofoam cups exists, it is not readily available here.
A check with Singapore’s four appointed waste collection companies shows that they do not recycle Styrofoam or other disposable food packaging. This fact is reflected on the labels of recycling bins found around housing estates.
3. A paper cup is made out of raw materials five times the weight of that used for a foam cup, according to A*STAR scientist Dr Jonathan Low.
“What you have in a Styrofoam cup is some plastic materials with a lot of air bubbles in it,” said Dr Low.
According to him, a Styrofoam cup consumes less material across its life stages, from the extraction of raw materials to its manufacture and use.
4. Additionally, paper cups are usually made with virgin paper - entirely from tree pulp - rather than from recycled material, revealed one of Malaysia’s largest paper cup manufacturers, Malex Paper Products, which also supplies its products to Singapore.
Malex’s spokesperson Wern Tan explained that demand for recycled paper cups has not yet picked up. “And it’s pretty hard to find recycled paper that is food grade, and enough to make the paper cups,” he added.
5. To make 50 million paper cups a month, Malex has to keep its 25 machines running for 24 hours a day. Manufacturing foam cups actually consumes less water and energy.
A 2006 study by Dutch organisation TNO showed that it takes 20 per cent more fuel and nearly twice as much water to manufacture paper cups. Moreover, 30 per cent more fuel is needed to transport the raw material for paper cups.
6. But even though manufacturing foam cups is less taxing on the earth’s resources, they are still made of polystyrene, which secretes cancer-causing chemicals when in contact with heat, warned experts from the US’ Environmental Protection Agency. It also takes more than a million years to decompose.
Some cities, including Penang, New York and Toronto, have banned the use of Styrofoam packaging.
7. But not many food and drink shops here are feeling the need to offer more sustainable packaging options. This is largely because customers are not demanding it, according to environmental writer Jessica Cheam.
“I think people are so used to the convenience that the infrastructure provides,” she said, listing household rubbish chutes and efficient cleaners as factors in the slow take-up rate of sustainable disposable food packaging.
In 2016, the National Environment Agency announced that it would introduce “mandatory requirements” for businesses to manage packaging waste more sustainably within the next three to five years.
8. But some coffee houses do offer discounts as an incentive. Major coffee chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean currently offer 50 cents off drinks when customers bring their own drink container.
And from now until Mar, 11 independent cafes will offer drink discounts of 50 cents, S$1 or 10 per cent off when customers bring their own tumblers - in a joint initiative with the programme Trash Trail.
They are A.R.C Coffee. Highlander Coffee, Sarnies, The Assembly Ground, Symmetry, Xiao Ya Tou, Strangers' Reunion, Curious Palette, Yellow Cup Coffee, Dapper Coffee, and Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee.
Watch the Trash Trail episode on disposable cups here. New episodes air on Mondays at 8pm. The series is part of the CNA Signatures belt showcasing innovative programmes.