Compostable, plastic, or paper: The best disposable cups have to be both durable and great to drink from.
How We Tested
Disposable cups are a dark horse: You may not think about them a lot, but when you need them, they sure do make life easier. They’re great for parties, large dinners, outdoor meals, and holiday gatherings where you don’t have enough regular glasses to go around or you just don’t want to risk breaking any. They also make for easy cleanup. Plastic and paper cups were once the prominent options, but a surge of eco-consciousness has made compostable options more widely available. How do they compare to the classic standbys, such as red plastic Solo cups and paper Dixie cups?
To see which disposable cup was best, we rounded up seven products, priced from about $0.05 to about $0.40 per cup, including three made from plastic, one made from paper, and three made from compostable materials. Of the compostable options, some did not state their materials, but those that did were made from polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic derived from corn, sugarcane, potatoes, tapioca, or soy protein (although corn is the most popular option in the United States). PLA performs like traditional plastic, but it is commercially compostable.
We focused on cups designed to hold cold beverages, with capacities that ranged from 9 to 12 ounces—with the latter being large enough to accommodate an entire can of soda or beer. To see how they performed, we used each to drink ice water. To assess their durability, we squeezed them repeatedly, both when they were full and when they were empty, and checked for irreparable crumples and cracks. We also filled them with soda, which is acidic, and let them sit for hours. To check their stability, we set them (empty) on a table, jostled the table, and checked to see which remained standing.
Which Cups Were the Most Comfortable to Hold and Drink From?
Right off the bat, testers singled out the paper option as being too flimsy—it reminded us of the cups we’d use when rinsing during a dentist’s appointment. We preferred the sturdier feel of the plastic and compostable cups. We also preferred cups that had a more distinctly tapered shape—with a wider top and narrower base—which we found easier and more comfortable to hold. Conversely, cups that had straighter sides were less grippy; the cups slid in our hands when we held and drank from them. Some of the cups featured indentations along the sides for our fingers to rest on or vertical markings around the cup that provided added grip. We appreciated these thoughtful design features, which added to the cups’ overall comfort.
With the exception of the flimsy paper product, all the cups were fine to sip ice water from; if we're being picky, we preferred drinking from cups with rounded rims that were not too bulky—about 3 millimeters wide. We found these cups a bit more comfortable to drink from than those with thicker rims that were about 4 millimeters wide. The rim of one of the cups was not rolled, and its sharp edge felt rough and unfinished as we drank.
Which Cups Were the Most Durable and the Most Stable?
Accidentally squeezing a disposable cup a little bit too hard only to have it crack (and potentially leak) is not ideal. To see which cups were prone to cracking, we used moderate pressure to squeeze them for three 10-second increments when they were both empty and full of water. In both instances, the most rigid models cracked immediately. And, expectedly, the paper cups offered no resistance. They were easily crushed, crumpling when empty and sending water over the sides when full. The most durable plastic and compostable cups struck a balance between rigidity and flexibility: They were rigid enough to feel sturdy in our hands but flexible enough to resist cracking.
For the next test, we filled separate sets of each cup with soda and 100-proof alcohol and let them all sit for 3 hours to see if either of these caustic liquids would cause any damage. The soda had no effect on any of the cups, but the alcohol dissolved the wax coating (since wax is soluble in ethanol) of the paper cup, making it soft, flabby, and unusable.
To see how stable the cups were, we placed each cup, one at a time, on a picnic table and shook the table. While none of the cups tipped over, the one product with a square base—a design the company purports helps with stability—was indeed more stable than the others, barely moving no matter how forcefully we shook the table. While this difference was minimal, we liked the thoughtful design feature of a square bottom.
Cup Disposal Methods: Composting Confusion
An important aspect to consider when purchasing disposable cups is the disposal method. Only one of the cups we tested, the wax-coated paper cup, was neither recyclable nor compostable—and thus has to be put right in the trash. That left the recyclable plastic and the compostable cups. While compostable cups might be considered by many to be a more eco-friendly option than plastic cups, we learned that this may not be true if you don’t have access to a commercial composting service. Experts told us that these cups aren’t meant to be composted at home; for cups to be certified compostable, they have to be able to degrade in a commercial facility within a 60- to 120-day time frame. In these commercial facilities, they speed up the composting process by finely shredding or grinding material into tiny pieces. They also regulate the temperature of the material being composted to ensure that it stays hot, and, depending on the facility, they may also add extra microorganisms to help speed up the process.
Disposing of disposable cups as you would regular trash doesn’t ensure that these compostable products will biodegrade once they hit the landfill. If there’s oxygen available in the landfill, compostable disposable cups will break down faster than plastic cups but at the same rate as other biodegradables such as paper. But air-locked or capped landfills, where oxygen is scarce, are more common. In these situations, compostable disposable cups can take hundreds of years to decompose.
A lot of compostable cups aren’t recyclable, and for those that are, many recycling companies won’t accept them. According to Miranda Lachman, the community outreach manager for Bootstrap Compost, a compost pickup service in the Boston and Providence areas, the bottom line about compostable cups and tablewares in general is this: “It’s only good for the environment if it’s going into a composting system.” So unless you subscribe to a composting service or your city has the infrastructure for commercial composting, plastic cups, which are recyclable, are the more environmentally-friendly option. Lachman also suggests finding a local composting option. There are several sites, such as this one, that list options in the United States sorted by location.
The Best Disposable Cups: Hefty Party Perfect Clear Plastic Cups-9 Ounce and Greenware Squat Clear Premium Cold Drink Cup 9 oz
The Hefty Party Perfect Clear Plastic Cups-9 Ounce are our favorite recyclable disposable cups. Their tapered shape made them easy to hold, and their rounded, not-too-thick rims were comfortable to drink from. They didn’t crack when we squeezed them repeatedly, both when empty and full; they weren’t damaged by soda or alcohol; and they stayed upright when jostled. They’re also recyclable, which makes them convenient to dispose of for many people.
Our favorite commercially compostable disposable cup is the Greenware Squat Clear Premium Cold Drink Cup 9 oz. Their tapered shape meant we could hold them securely and, except for a tiny split at the rim, they withstood being squeezed both when empty and full. They didn’t disintegrate when we let soda and alcohol sit in them for hours, and they stayed upright during our jostling test. It’s important to note that these cups aren’t meant to be composted at home, but if you’re looking for a compostable option, these are a good choice.
- Test seven products, priced from about $0.05 to $0.40 per cup, including three made from plastic, one made from paper, and three made from compostable materials such as polylactic acid (PLA)
- Drink ice water from each cup
- Use moderate pressure to squeeze cups repeatedly, both when empty and full, and check for cracks and crumpling
- Fill each cup with soda, let cup sit for 3 hours, and then check the empty cup for damage
- Pour 2 fluid ounces of alcohol into each cup, let cups sit for 3 hours, and check empty cups for damage
- One at a time, place full cups on picnic table and shake table repeatedly
- Have three users of different dominant hands and hand sizes hold and sip from each cup
Comfort: We evaluated how comfortable the cups were to hold and drink from.
Durability: We noted if models withstood being squeezed repeatedly and if they remained undamaged when we let soda and alcohol sit in them for hours.