Paper cup

Paper cup

A paper cup is a disposable cup made out of paper and often lined with plastic or wax to prevent liquid from leaking out or soaking through the paper. It may be made of recycled paper and is widely used around the world.


Early in the 20th century, it was common to have shared glasses or dippers at water sources such as school faucets or water barrels in trains. This shared use caused public health concerns. One notable investigation into their use was Lafayette College biology professor Alvin Davison's study, published with the sensational title "Death in School Drinking Cups" in Technical World Magazine in August 1908, based on research carried out in Easton, Pennsylvania's public schools. The article was reprinted and distributed by the Massachusetts State Board of Health in November 1909.

Based on these concerns, and as paper goods (especially after the 1908 invention of the Dixie Cup) became cheaply and cleanly available, local bans were passed on the shared-use cup. One of the first railway companies to use disposable paper cups was the Lackawanna, which began using them in 1909. By 1917, the public glass had disappeared from railway carriages, replaced by paper cups even in jurisdictions where public glasses had yet to be banned.

Paper cups are also employed in hospitals for health reasons. As reported by France, in 1942 the Massachusetts State College found in one study that the cost of using washable glasses, re-used after being sanitized, was 1.6 times the cost of using single-service paper cups. These studies, as well as the reduction in the risk of cross-infection, encouraged the use of paper cups in hospitals.

Dixie cups

Dixie Cup is the brand name for a line of disposable paper cups that were first developed in the United States in the early 20th century. While they were undoubtedly novel and profitable, they were also seen as a way to improve public hygiene.

They were introduced in 1907 by Lawrence Luellen, a lawyer in Boston, Massachusetts, who was concerned about germs being spread by people sharing glasses or dippers at public supplies of drinking water. Luellen developed an ice-cooled water-vending machine with disposable cups, and with another Bostonian, Hugh Moore, embarked on a campaign to educate the public and to market his machine, principally to railroad companies. Professor Davison's study was instrumental in abolishing the public glass and opening the door for the paper cup. Soon, the devices, which would dispense cool water for a cent, became standard equipment on trains.

The Dixie Cup was first called "Health Kup", but from 1919 it was named after a line of dolls made by Alfred Schindler's Dixie Doll Company in New York. Success led the company, which had existed under a variety of names, to call itself the Dixie Cup Corporation and move to Easton, Pennsylvania.

Dixie merged with the American Can Company in 1957. It is now part of a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the largest privately owned company in the United States.

The Dixie Cup logo was created by in 1969 by Saul Bass, a graphic designer known for his motion picture title sequences.


Originally, paper cups for hot drinks were glued together and made waterproof by dropping a small amount of clay in the bottom of the cup, and then spinning at high speed so that clay would travel up the walls of the cup, making the paper water-resistant. However, this resulted in drinks smelling and tasting of cardboard.

Cups for cold drinks could not be treated in the same way, as condensation forms on the outside, then soaks into the board, making the cup unstable. To remedy this, cup manufacturers developed the technique of spraying both the inside and outside of the cup with wax. Both clay-coated and wax-coated cups disappeared with the invention of polyethylene (PE) coated cups; this process coverers the surface of the board with a very thin layer of PE, not only waterproofing the cup, but also welding it together.

Impact of use

Paper cups have an environmental impact as do all products. Although the cups themselves are made from renewable resources (wood chips), paper cups actually consume more non-renewable resources in their manufacture than cups made of polystyrene foam (foam cups are made from 100% oil based material, that is a finite resource), since converting the wood chips to paper pulp requires energy. During their life cycle, the only significant effluent of polystyrene cups is pentane. In contrast, the manufacture of paper requires several inorganic chemicals and creates large amounts of water effluents. Similarly, recycling polystyrene cups has less impact than recycling paper cups, recycling channels for expanded polystyrene remain limited, mainly due to the volume of cups to actual weight of material recovered. In Europe collecting schemes for paper cups like the scheme in the UK (Save a Cup) are proving popular, and are sending paper cups as well as plastic cups for recycling, although this scheme does not include expanded poly styrene cups. Paper cups are, however, more biodegradable than polystyrene cups, with the caveat that in an anaerobic landfill all paper products will generally remain undegraded for a long time.

A number of cities, e.g. Portland, Oregon in 2003, have banned XPS foam cups and required the use of paper ones in take-out and fast food restaurants.

As expanded polystyrene cups do not break down at all in the environment, and will still be blowing around the country side in a 100 years, it may seem a logical choice to use paper cups, but since PE coated paper cups create disposability problems in the environment (PE does not biodegrade in the environment) it could take several years for the majority of the paper cup to break down leaving just the PE which represents less than 5% of the original product by weight.

PE coated cups are being replaced by biodegradable bio-plastic coatings (Ecocontainer) which biodegrade when disposed. In this the entire cup becomes an environmentally friendly option as opposed to the case where only paper being a bioproduct was biodegradable.Although from a environmental point, composting / biodegradability should be a last option, and recovering fibres to remake into more paper products, or recovering energy should be the 1st two options.

As with all environmental studies, great care should be taken to look at environmental aspects of any product, this may get very confusing, as interested parties can create huge rafts of information, that seem to benefit a particular product. In general terms there is no one product that will fit all applications, and it is for the consumer to weigh up the benefits to the environment and there business of each product.


Paper cups may have various types of lid. The paper cups that are used as containers for yoghurt, for example, generally have two types of lid: a press-on, resealable, lid (used for large "family size" containers, 250 ml to 1000 ml, where not all of the yoghurt may be consumed at any one time and thus the ability to re-close the container is required) and heat-seal foil lids (used for small "single serving" containers, 150 ml to 200 ml).

Paper cup lids may be used when one wants to be careful not to spill, for instance when it is filled with a hot beverage.

In popular culture

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Further reading

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