Paper cup was developed as a life-saving technology in the early 20th century, and it is delivering the same health and safety values still today.
As the world is learning to live and cope with the coronavirus, staying clean and safe is at the top of everyone's mind. At first glance, the paper cups we use today may not appear to have anything to do with the current situation. However, a quick look at its history will reveal that this functional product came about during a similar crisis and has been a hygienic choice ever since.
The modern paper cup traces its roots to the end of the American Civil War. During the early days of the 20th century, drinking water had become increasingly popular thanks to the emergence of the temperance movement in the US. Promoted as a healthy alternative to beer or liquor, water was available at school faucets, fountains and water barrels on trains and wagons. Communal cups or dippers made from metal, wood, or ceramic were used to drink the water.
The war on germs
In response to growing concerns about communal cups posing a danger to public health, a Boston lawyer named Lawrence Luellen crafted a disposable two-piece cup from paper in 1907.
Simultaenously, Dr. Samuel Crumbine, one of the founding fathers of modern public health, started campaigning against the use of common cups as part of his fight against tuberculosis. One anecdote tells how as he was riding on a train across Kansas, he noticed a number of passengers with tuberculosis drinking water from a common drinking cup which was shared with healthy passengers. When a healthy little girl drank from the cup, the story goes that Dr. Crumbine jumped out of his seat, snatched the container from the wall, and declared that both the common cup and basin would be banned by the state. And they were.
It was Luellen’s brother-in-law, Hugh Moore, who demonstrated the prototype paper cup to Dr Crumbine. This led to the creation of the American Water Supply Company of New England and initiatives by the two dispensing individual servings of water from a tall porcelain cooler they developed. Building on this, the two partners embarked on an advertising campaign to market the cooler spreading the word about the health benefits of disposable drinking cups, which resulted in a US patent for Luellen’s paper cup in 1912.
In 1918, the Spanish flu killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world. In the US, nearly one in three people was infected, and the epidemic claimed over half a million lives. This fear of disease-causing germs brought even greater interest in disposable paper cups.
The evolution continues
The 1930s saw this creation develop further, from the invention of a paper cup with handles, meant to mimic mugs used for hot drinks, to the creation of the Solo Cup, a paper cone.
In 1942 a study by the Massachusetts State College found that using single-service paper cups cost less than sanitizing glassware for re-use in hospitals, which was the practice at the time. These findings, as well as the decrease in the risk of cross-infection, led to the use of the paper alternative in hospitals.
In Finland in the 1960s, Huhtamaki began making paper cups.
Shaped by trends
In the 1980s, food trends played a huge role in the design of disposable cups. Specialty coffees such as cappuccinos, lattes, and cafe mochas — anything with a frothy crown — grew in popularity among Americans.
Today, paper cups are used not only to serve hot and cold beverages such as coffee or tea, but also to hold food items such as ice creams and soups. Go to any office, fast food restaurant, large sporting event or music festival, and you’re bound to see paper cups being used.
In the emerging economies, rising income levels, hectic lifestyles and long working hours have caused consumers to shift from non-disposable utensils to paper cups so as to save on time. As these cups are sterile, they can be used to consume fast food such as noodles and soups, and beverages such as tea and aerated drinks.
A 21st century solution - Renewable, recyclable options
Like all food packaging, the carbon footprint of a paper cup is small compared to the food itself. New solutions that significantly reduce dependence on fossil oil-based materials and offer more consumer choice are already here. Huhtamaki’s Future Smart™ paper cup, for instance, is the first 100% renewable paper cup made from plants. These cups are suitable for both hot and cold drinks as well as food. Partnerships are being created to develop recycling solutions for paper cups, for example recycling company First Mile recently formed a partnership with Huhtamaki to further increase the number of disposable coffee cups effectively recycled in the UK.
"Consumers, along with government initiatives and regulations, are calling for reduced carbon footprints and this is providing a robust push to the sales of recyclable eco-friendly paper cups. We see many new possible applications for paper cups and fiber overall in the food packaging sector", says Richard Ali, Sustainability Director from the Huhtamaki Fiber and Foodservice business segment.
The paper cup has definitely come a long way. It was invented to tackle food safety and hygiene concerns and it is proudly serving that same purpose still today.
Read more about the carbon footprint of a paper cup in our life cycle analysis