So, you may be wondering whether or not you can pour hot coffee into a plastic cup. Maybe you and your friends are having a great debate right now. Perhaps you’re the owner of a new coffee shop in town and are looking for options. You’re probably thinking that most hot drinks usually come to customers in paper cups or mugs in cafes. Why would anyone use a plastic cup for hot coffee anyway?
Right off the bat, there may be a few factors to consider here. Wouldn’t hot coffee melt the plastic? Wouldn’t the taste of the plastic get into my coffee? Wouldn’t you burn your hands?
Types of Plastic Cups
First, let’s look at the types of plastic cups available on the market. The disposable plastic cups you’re probably used to seeing are made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and, more uncommonly, bio-based polylactic acid (PLA).
Polypropylene plastic cups are extremely popular because of their ability to keep your coffee tasting the way it should, meaning they prevent flavors and aromas from transferring. If you’re a coffee vendor, these cups are the most cost-efficient, and are typically cheaper than PET cups. Polypropylene cups have a melting point of 338 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). These cups have the recyclable number “5” on the bottom.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
According to the SeattlePI, polyethylene terephthalate cups are sturdier and clearer than polypropylene plastic, giving a more high-end feel. PET cups have the recyclable symbol number “1.” PET cups are very easy to recycle. PET cups have a melting point of 491 degrees Fahrenheit (250 degrees Celsius)
This last one is worth mentioning, as it is eco-friendly.
Bio-based Polylactic acid (PLA)
This type of plastic is made from corn or sugar. The main benefit of this type of plastic is that it is commercially compostable at specific facilities. According to this article, the company Puralact has found that PLA can resist heat of up to 240 degrees F (120 degrees Celsius.) If you happen to score these, check for the number “7” on the bottom.
Temperature of Coffee
Now that we have a basic understanding of the most common types of plastic cups out there, we can talk about the temperature of coffee. Typical coffee machines can heat water up to 195-205 degrees Farehnheit. Most home coffee makers can brew coffee as hot as a boiling 212 degrees Fahrenheit or as low as 180 degrees Fahrenheit on a cheaper, more inefficient coffee maker.
Overall, it sounds like we’re in the clear. All claim heat resistance to most hot coffees as hot as they come, and both claim to effectively prevent flavor and odor transfer. So technically, yes, you can pour hot coffee into plastic cups. A better question is, “should you pour hot coffee into a plastic cup?”
Depending on the temperature of your coffee, you run the risk of acquiring burns, especially if using a flimsy, disposable plastic cup. Just because businesses can flaunt their sturdy cups does not mean you should push the limits. Just one accidental squeeze could land you in the hospital with scalding burns. Remember Liebeck vs. McDonald’s? Enough said.
For all intents and purposes, let’s say that you tried to justify reusing a disposable plastic cup in the name of eco-consciousness. No matter how many times you reuse your plastic cups, there are speculations on the long-term effects of plastic use. The effects are still being studied and we may be searching for answers indefinitely. We just don’t know how and to what extent the chemicals will affect us in the future.
Lastly, do not downplay the environmental impact of plastic on the environment. Single-use plastics and plastics that are labeled as “reusable” can and do end up in landfills, where they take centuries to break down. Chemicals eventually leach into the ground, degrading the environment. Plastics can and have already caused devastating harm to ecosystems all around the world.
If you do choose to use reusable plastic cups, just remember that some can stain and absorb flavor over time. Look for BPA-free and phthalate-free labels if you have concerns about chemicals potentially leaching into your drink, especially when using these containers to hold any hot drinks.
If you must go with a single-use option, try to find PLA renewable bio-based plastic cups or opt for paper cups. Paper cups make for fair insulation and protect your hands from getting burnt. Just remember that many paper cups contain plastic liners. This makes paper cups harder to recycle and therefore less sustainable.
If you have time, cop yourself a thermos that can keep your coffee warm throughout the day. These are usually made from stainless steel and can last several years if not decades. A quality thermos will have double-walled vacuum sealing. These thermoses will keep any drinks insulated for hours. These come in various shapes and sizes and can be used for both food and drinks. I consider these a great investment. The only downside to thermoses is that they tend to stay really hot, and I mean really hot if you don’t air them out immediately after pouring your coffee fresh from the pot.
Try ceramic mugs if you’re staying put. What’s better than a quirky mug that expresses your personality and keeps your coffee tasting great? Ceramic mugs are also microwave-safe, making them awesome for lazy days loafing around the house. Find one that fits your personality. I like to look for mugs with a snug fit handle, to lessen the chance of slippage and spillage. Ceramic mugs do not absorb flavor, nor do they stain.
So remember, PP, PET, and PLA (Puralact) cups can withstand the heat from most coffee brewed. Do your research on the specific brand or material you have by checking out the recyclable number. Chances are, you can pour hot coffee in a plastic cup if you’re very careful. Should you do it? Probably not. Recycle your single use plastics and invest in a thermos, mug, or a more eco-friendly option instead.