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Your ‘plastic free’ cup probably isn’t

January 10, 2019

Takeaway paper cups are lined with a polymer (plastic) lining to make them waterproof. Traditionally this lining is polyethylene, but in the case of compostable cups it is a polylactic acid plastic lining.

The plastic lining in takeaway coffee cups is just one element making these difficult to recycle. You can read more about issues with recycling and what happens to takeaway cups in a MRF.

As numerous claims of ‘plastic free’ takeaway cups hit the market, we’ve worked with researchers at the University of South Australia to undertake a series of tests to determine if there is any truth to these claims.


The University of South Australia determined three top line classifications the ‘plastic free’ takeaway cup linings actually fall into:

  1. PLA Lined
    PLA, or compostable, takeaway cups feature a lining made from corn starch or sugar cane. While manufactured from a renewable resource, the reality is that at its end of life, the PLA bioplastic lining is still a plastic. Without making it to an industrial composter, it is just as destructive as any other plastic packaging in the environment or landfill.
  2. Latex-based lining
    Linings for takeaway cups or other products which are latex based may be marketed as ‘plastic free’. However, with this technology only recently available after a number of false starts in previous years, there are still questions about the validity of environmental claims or recyclability of this lining.
  3. Polymers of different kinds
    The other finding from University of South Australia researchers was in testing cups claiming a ‘plastic free’ lining that instead has a lining made of an undetermined plastic polymer. A polymer is a chemical compound of molecules bounded together in long, repeating chains. A traditional PE-lined cup contains polymers, as does a PLA lined cup, as does the latex-lined cup, and as do these undetermined polymers.
Peter D'Antiochia, Business and Coffee Development Manager at Rio Coffee assists with cup lining trials

Peter D'Antiochia, Business and Coffee Development Manager at Rio Coffee assists with cup lining trials

When it comes to validating the claims of your takeaway packaging, make sure you can get transparency from your supplier about what materials are actually being used to manufacture your packaging products.

Claims of ‘plastic free’ linings may also be paired with misleading information about how consumers can responsibly dispose of their packaging. For example, a PLA or compostable cup claiming to be recyclable via product labelling can contaminate the recycling process.

Explore Detpak's range of sustainably sourced takeaway cups here.

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