Back To Top

Ditch disposable coffee cups

Did you stop by a coffee shop and grab a latte on the way to work this morning?

Over the past decade, what was before perceived as a typical American lifestyle has become a daily routine for many Koreans, churning out thousands of tiny takeaway coffee shops on corners of Seoul streets.

But do you know that your cup of joy this morning had a negative impact on the environment?

An average Korean drinks over 338 cups of coffee a year. There is no official data on how many of those coffees are bought in disposable cups ― hot coffees in paper cups, which come with plastic tops and cardboard heat guards, and cold drinks in plastic ones. Coffee shops say more than 70 percent of their customers choose single-use cups over ceramic mugs or tumblers. 

Most paper cups have a thin coating of polyethylene resin coating for both insulation and durability. This plastic coating prevents the recycling of the cups. According to industry officials, the recycling rate of these cups stands at less than 15 percent. This means a lot of landfill space.

To produce 1 ton of paper cups, an average 20 trees are cut down. In addition, 11 grams of CO2 are released into the atmosphere during the production of a single paper cup.

Still, the consumption of paper cups is growing by 20 percent to 30 percent each year, environmentalists say.

“Disposable coffee cups are not only harmful to the environment. They are harmful to our health,” said Yoon Mi-kyung, an official at the Korea Green Foundation. Chemicals may leach into the hot coffee from the plastic coating, she warns.

For street sweepers, these cups are a major headache, too.

“Takeaway coffee cups, not cigarette butts or fallen leaves, have become the most common type of litter in streets, parks and other public spaces,” an official at Seoul’s Jung-gu ward office, where many of Seoul’s tourist attractions and major shopping streets are located.

Korea once ran a deposit-return system for disposable cups at fast-food outlets and coffee shops. Customers who ordered their drinks in single-use cups were charged 50 to 100 won as a deposit, which was reclaimed when the cup is returned.

The system, which was introduced in 2003, was abolished in 2008, as part of the incumbent government’s deregulation drive.

Instead of the compulsory rule, the government is encouraging coffee and fast-food chains to take part in a voluntary movement to reduce the use of disposable cups.

As of 2012, a total of 13 franchises, including Starbucks, have signed the pact with the Environmental Ministry. Between January and July of 2012, these stores gave away nearly 125 million plastic cups, of which just half were returned.

Some coffee chains have rolled up their sleeves to help their customers kick their throwaway habit.

U.S. coffee giant Starbucks has recently started selling a $1 tumbler at its stores in U.S. and Canada. It gives a dime discount for each refill so the cup pays for itself after 10 uses. The move came after thousands of people signed petitions on, a website promoting social change, urging companies to promote reusable options and abandon polystyrene foam packaging, which is rarely recycled.

By Lee Sun-young (