Are paper cups made of paper?

Paper cups, promoted as an eco-alternative to single-use plastic, besides paper, are actually made of plastic and other chemical compounds. This composition reduces the possibility of cup recycling. According to the EU directive, paper cups are classified as single-use plastic.

Single-use plastic cups have recently been banned, but is replacing them with some other single-use, partly plastic, packaging the solution to the global pollution problem? Zero Waste Europe initiative problematizes this in its research.

What is hidden inside paper cup layers?

Paper cups consist of composite plastic, glue, ink, aluminum and various other additives. The most dangerous component of paper packaging are PFAS chemicals. They are perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals”. These chemicals persist permanently in the environment. It has been reported that these chemicals cause a range of health issues. Because of it some European countries have banned them. For example, in Denmark, the ban has been in place since 2020.

Chemical substances affect the recyclability of paper packaging. Such packaging either cannot be recycled at all, or only a small portion can be recycled. According to Eurostat, paper packaging accounts for the largest percentage of packaging waste in the European Union, a staggering 41.1%. In 2020, the total amount of this waste was 32.7 million tons, which is more than the combined total of plastic and glass waste. Half of the paper produced in the European Union is used for single-use packaging.

Because of this, paper packaging cannot be part of a circular economy and poses a greater threat to the environment than plastic packaging.

With all that said, be assured that labels like “100% natural,” “plastic-free,” “compostable” on disposable paper packaging are a prime example of greenwashing. This still open question is the subject of numerous debates in the European Parliament and is the target of lobbying by various large companies, mainly from the fast food sector.

How can you contribute?

Big changes always start with individuals. You can be one drop in the waterfall of change aimed at preserving the environment. Here’s what you can do to contribute to pollution reduction:

  • Use reusable packaging.
  • Recycle according to the instructions of your local waste management company.
  • Buy in bulk.
  • If possible, choose products packaged in jars or cans.
  • Educate yourself and spread information about environmental conservation. Teach your friends about the importance of using reusable packaging.

Keep in mind that numerous studies show that environmental awareness contributes to the quality of community life. According to surveys, people who contribute to the community are happier.

Good practice examples

Last year, France enacted a circular economy law requiring food and drinks served in hospitality establishments to be served in reusable packaging. Since last year, Germany and Netherlands have required from larger hospitality establishments, including those with to-go services, to offer reusable glasses and food containers. Portugal will adopt the same practice from this year, and in Luxembourg, as of 2025, packaging and utensils for takeaway food must be reusable.

Use of PFAS chemicals in paper packaging is banned in Denmark since 2020. It is interesting to note that, according to the research conducted by eight European environmental protection associations titled Throwaway packaging, forever chemicals PFAS substances were found in other countries from the same manufacturers who supply packaging without these chemicals to the Danish market. This shows us that regulations can indeed influence the well-being of the environment and society.

Every year, three billion trees are cut down for paper food packaging. Largest imports of raw materials comes to EU from Brazil. Finland and Sweden are the largest european producers, this has resulted in 76% of Finnish forests being declared endangered. Paper production requires large amounts of water, with significantly more water being used for disposable products. Producing a single disposable coffee-to-go cup consumes 1,3 liters of water, while washing a reusable cup requires only 100-200 milliliters. Making a single disposable cardboard pizza box requires as much as 5 liters of water! Additionally, large amounts of unnecessary paper packaging become waste that is difficult to recycle, while persistent chemicals remain in the environment.

EU on paper packaging

According to the EU Regulation on Packaging and Packaging Waste (PPWR), single-use paper packaging is classified as single-use plastic. This regulation has been the subject of negotiations since November 2022, and last Monday, March 4th, final negotiations were finally concluded, awaiting final adoption. Member of European Parliament adopted their first reading position on the proposed revision of the Waste Framework with 514 votes in favour, 20 against and 91 abstentions.  

Last year, Rethink Plastic, noticing shortcomings and room for improvement in the regulation, sent an open letter to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. The letter, aimed at encouraging decision-makers to achieve packaging reuse goals, was signed by around 80 European environmental organizations, including Sunce.


With the aim of reducing pollution, members of the European Parliament propose banning PFAS chemicals in food packaging and allowing consumers to bring their own reusable packaging when ordering food and drinks to go. The EU will implement measures adopting the principles of a circular economy. According to the Green Deal EU will ensure that by 2030 all packaging in the EU can be reused or recycled in an economically efficient manner.

With joint efforts, we can truly contribute to environmental protection. Therefore, ask yourself about the products you use, whether paper cups are made of paper or just disguised plastic with the addition of a few “forever chemicals”?

There will be further discussion about the PPWR regulation, and we will bring you all the most important news and tips for implementing the principles of a circular economy in everyday life. Subscribe to our newsletter and be among the first to find out what’s happening in the field of environmental protection. You can support our work by becoming a member or by volunteering.