PE vs PLA vs WBBC: Which One to Choose for Your Paper Cups?

Now you might not know how the paper cup works to hold your beverage or soggy food without leaking all over your hands. But surely you have heard about PE and PLA and how your cups are coated by them, even you know that these paper linings probably have something to do with our environment. And that’s why many brands like KFC, Mcdonwlawed or Starbucks, and Costa, choose more eco-friendly paper cups. But if you are into the food industry, which types of paper cup coating should you choose? As a primary manufacturer that offers OEM service for many food brands. Let’s share our ideas with you today.

PE

PE is polyethylene, first commercially produced starting in the 1939-1940 period. It’s a very popular plastic used for bags, packaging, and containers. PE as a coating for paper cups took off more significantly in the post-World War II era, as the material’s properties of being waterproof, flexible, and relatively inexpensive to produce made it an ideal choice for enhancing the functionality of paper cups. Currently, PE-coated paper cups can be different based on their PE density.

It is said that over 90% of the packaging is made of PE, however, PE is petroleum-based, meaning it takes time for the PE-coated paper cups to break down. Although PE is accounted only for 5% of a whole paper cup, it’s still the main contaminant in the whole paper waste. The reason why it can’t be removed unlike dirt or dyes during the repulping process is that plastic liners would become flakes that clog the fine screens. This is why many paper mills just send these cups to landfills and let paper cups naturally break down there.

Is there any way to recycle these PE paper cups? Yes, but it costs! Material Recycling Facilities (MRF) are made for these, but recycling PE cups would be very expensive. Although eco-conscious customers would like to ask brand owners to reduce the waste, they don’t want to pay for this. Clearly, consumers and taxpayers don’t want to pay for the bill, yet they still want to use paper cups for their coffees. Even Starbucks is struggling with this.

However, the main benefit of using PE-coated paper cups is their price. PE is often considered the most budget-friendly coating for many brands, especially for some startups or restaurants. Even big brands use PE-coated packaging, like Dunkin’, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Starbucks, and more.

PE Regulations

Unfortunately, PE coated paper cups and containers are going to be phased out due to the regulations in some countries. HongKong starts to ban all the single used plastics in restaurants and in Neitherland and France, it’s basically the same. This is all because of the environment concerns of PE. PE alternatives are the future of the food packaging. So make sure you’ve checked the local regulations on packaging for your brands.

PLA

PLA, on the other hand, is known as a bioplastic and can be totally biodegradable and composted. It’s made from plant-based materials like sugar cane and cornstarch, which are natural organic plants in the world and do not leave any toxic residues or contaminants compared to PE. PLA was commercially used in the 1980s when someone found PLA from corn starch. This was a stunning bioplastic as it’s affordable and cost-efficient.

PLA (Polylactic Acid) coated paper cups represent a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional PE (Polyethylene) coated paper cups. PLA is a bioplastic derived from renewable resources such as corn starch, sugarcane, or cassava, making it compostable under industrial composting conditions. This feature aligns with increasing demand for sustainable packaging solutions that reduce reliance on fossil fuels and minimize environmental impact.

Similar to PE-coated cups, PLA-coated paper cups have a thin layer of PLA on the interior surface. This coating serves the same purpose as PE, providing a barrier against liquids to prevent the paper from becoming soggy. However, the main difference lies in the environmental credentials of PLA:

  • Compostable: PLA can be composted in industrial composting facilities, where it breaks down into water and carbon dioxide within a few months, assuming the composting conditions (like temperature and humidity) are right.
  • Made from Renewable Resources: Since PLA is derived from plants, its production can be more sustainable than traditional plastics made from petroleum, contributing to a reduction in carbon footprint.

Regulations on PLA

Overall PLA coated paper containers are more welcomed in most countries.

EU’s frameworks and directives that promote the reduction of single-use plastics and the circular economy indirectly affect PLA products. The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, for instance, encourages the reduction of packaging waste and the use of recyclable and compostable materials, under which PLA products can fall.

In the United States, regulation of PLA and other bioplastics falls more to state and local jurisdictions than to a cohesive federal policy. Some states, like California, have specific labeling requirements for biodegradable and compostable products to prevent consumer confusion and ensure that such products are disposed of properly.

Even Countries in Asia have varied approaches to PLA and bioplastics, often driven by their broader waste management challenges and sustainability goals. Japan, for example, has been a leader in bioplastics research and use, integrating PLA into various products and packaging solutions.

WBBC (Water Based Barrier Coating)

WBBC so called Water Based Barrier Coating is the current trend for the paper containers. It’s an innovative and more eco friendly alternative to polyethylene (PE) or polylactic acid (PLA). WBBC technology have been especially notable since the early 2010s as people demand for a more sustainable and greener solutions for paper cups. Brands today are looking for WBBC as their food packaging solutions because of this and we believe WBBC is the future for food and drink packaging industry despite the cost.

WBBCs are applied to paper in a similar manner to other coatings, but they use water as the primary solvent. This process results in a barrier that protects the paper from moisture and fat, making it ideal for use in food packaging, including paper cups for hot and cold beverages. The water-based nature of these coatings means they contain fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are less toxic, and are derived from renewable resources, contributing to their eco-friendly profile.

WBBC paper cups are gaining traction as businesses and consumers seek more sustainable alternatives to traditional disposable cups. They are used in various settings, from coffee shops and fast-food restaurants to office buildings and public events. The adoption of WBBC technology reflects a growing awareness of environmental issues and a shift towards products that offer convenience without compromising sustainability.

However, WBBC paper containers are tend to be more expensive compared to PE and PLA due it the production. In the past few month, we do see a rise demand for the WBBC paper cups and other containers. Brand owners would like to pay for a higher price to meet their customers’ eco consciousness and local regulations. And we’ve been offering OEM service for WBBC paper cups for over decades, that’s why many brands come to us for an affordable prices without comprising the quality.

Which One to Choose for Your Paper Cup Lining?

Now we’ve scooped on these three common coating materials for paper cup linings. It’s time for you to choose one. To be honest, as a primary manufacturer, we are capable of supplying these three types of paper cups in bulk orders, even with custom design service and one stop service. However, from our standpoint, we would like to see brands that can choose a more sustainable solutions. This is beneficial even in the long run as people know what they are buying.

PE is good but it’s phasing out compared to the other two. If you are in food business yet your local regulations allow for single used plastics (including PE coated paper containers) perhaps it’s a good material to start with. However PLA and WBBC is the more sustainable solution for you. And between these two, we would recommend WBBC. But it also depends on your brands and business models.

So contact us and let us offer you a workable food paper packaging solutions for you!