Is that tropical forest in your coffee cup?

photo of an empty coffee cup
Publication date

Proposals for a “latte tax” in the UK have focused attention on the growing mountain of disposable cups ending up in landfill. While this is clearly an important problem that must be tackled, less attention has focused on the resources used to make the cup, and the environmental risks associated with sourcing paper products.

Disposable coffee cups are just one of the multitude of throw-away containers that have become ubiquitous in modern life. Takeaway coffees, snacks and ready-made meals all need packaging – and often that packaging is paper based.

Enormous efforts have been made to improve paper and packaging supply chains in recent years, with many companies sourcing recycled fibres, or committing to ensure their paper comes from sustainably-certified forests.

But shockingly, some big food companies have not addressed this problem in their supply chains. The latest Forest 500 analysis assessed 215 companies on whether they had policies in place to ensure their pulp and paper supplies do not contribute to deforestation. We found that almost half of those companies had no policy in place.

Among the companies failing to address the deforestation risks in their supply chains were big brand food producers including Kraft Heinz Co., Domino’s Pizza and burger chain, Wendy’s Co.

Unlike the coffee cups, some of the packaging used by these companies may be easily recyclable. And some of it may even end up being recycled. But that is of little consolation if rainforest has been cleared for the packaging to be made.

Forests are vital natural resources. They play a crucial role in regulating our climate, acting as a store for carbon dioxide, and have an important function in regulating rainfall.

They also provide precious natural habitat for a myriad of wildlife – and livelihoods for millions of forest dwelling communities.

Of course none of these factors show up on the label when you buy your takeaway pizza… and they are not your first consideration when you need that caffeine fix in the morning.

But responsible companies are addressing the issue. More than 100 of the companies we surveyed did have a policy in place to ensure their pulp and paper supply chain was not contributing to deforestation. Many of these are food companies, so there is no argument that this cannot be done.

So yes, we must address the coffee cup junk mountain – but let’s not stop there. Too much disposable packaging is still putting the world’s forests at risk – and that needn’t be the case. Companies can take steps to increase the supply and demand of responsibly produced paper-based packaging.

And we can all do our bit by using re-usable coffee cups. Re-using is always better than recycling – and the forests are protected as well.