Compostable, plastic, or paper: The best disposable cups have to be both durable and great to drink from.
Published Aug. 13, 2020.
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.
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 p...
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