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Paper or plastic? We choose paper-based cup lids

Innovative paper-based cup lids are a more sustainable alternative to plastic lids

Photo of Joshua Morales
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Paper-based lids completely eliminate the plastic lid concept. Instead, the lids are made of the same paper material as the cups. This allows for easier and more efficient recycling as well as accounts for the instances where the lids are not recycled and are just disposed of. By utilizing existing technologies and manufacturing processes from the paper cup and container industry, it will accelerate implementation and reduce technological risk. Lastly, it maintains the same cups and user experience, which will encourage instant industry and consumer acceptance and enable more wide-spread adoption.

Two design concepts are proposed, both of which can be extended to hot (coffee) and cold (fountain) cup applications. Perforated straw holes (circular or cross-shaped) can be included for fountain drink applications, and sip holes can be created for hot beverage applications (or to eliminate the need for a straw while still preventing spilling when sloshing).

Concept 1: Nesting paper lids based on the bottom of a paper cup

Tapered seals are commonly used in several industries to create water-tight seals without the need for special gaskets while allowing for some variation in fit. The concept here involves creating a lid that fits inside of the cup near the lip and has a taper that matches that of the cup in order to create a water-tight seal. The lid can feature a rolled lip as found in paper cups for structural stability and for a familiar sipping experience; the lip also allows for easier lid removal (as a grip) for refills and can potentially be used to ensure proper fitment of the lid (alignment with cup lip), depending on the final lid geometry. Although shown towards the bottom of the lid, the planar surface of the lid can be placed at any vertical position, which will be determined during further development. 

Concept 2: Paper lids based on existing paper soup cup lids

Paper lids are currently produced for take-away soup containers. These lids are typically double walled for additional insulation. The idea for this concept is to create a single-walled paper lid that utilizes less material and can function as a lid for fountain drinks or hot beverages. Alternatively, a premium double-walled lid version could be created for hot beverages.


The similarities in form of the proposed paper lids to standard paper cups present an opportunity to partner with a paper cup manufacturer and leverage current paper cup manufacturing processes. Utilizing existing tooling, production equipment, and materials will allow for a substantial initial production volume as well as reduced development costs. With both paper lids and cups being made of the same material, this eliminates a waste sorting issue by allowing consumers to dispose both cup and lids in one receptacle. This demonstrates potential for a decrease in plastic waste leakage and an increase in paper recycling, which could then be used for the manufacture of new paper cups and lids.

Development plan

We intend to perform user testing to identify potential design and usability issues/concerns and areas for improvement. Then, we would work with a manufacturing partner in order to roll out the new lids and evaluate their use, performance, disposal, and consumer response in a controlled, realistic setting. We plan to initially implement this concept as a pilot program on the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Mayagüez campus and then other UPR campuses. Upon testing and obtaining user feedback for further product refinement, we plan to partner with one or more major coffee and/or fast food franchises in order to determine an appropriate region for initial commercial implementation before scaling to the national level (United States). This way, the model can have proof of concept at a community level and regional level before expanding to the national and global markets.

Geographical context

We chose to address Puerto Rico as our region for several reasons. First and foremost, our company, Isla Innovations, has roots in Puerto Rico. As an island, we have limited resources, and the environmental impact of our linear economy is more apparent and its implications are more imminent than in the Continental United States, where more space is available for waste, and raw materials and products can be trucked in (and waste trucked out) overnight. According to the EPA (Solid Waste in Puerto Rico, 2010), “Puerto Rico residents generate more waste than people living on the mainland, and recycling rates in the Commonwealth are lower. Much of Puerto Rico's solid waste ends up in one of island's 32 landfills, most of which do not comply with Commonwealth and federal landfill requirements.” Puerto Rico relies solely on municipality-controlled landfills for waste disposal, and with over 4 million tons of solid waste generated per year, waste has a significant impact on our economy, our environment, and our lives. In fact, in by 2020, it is expected that there will only be 4 landfills in operation (compared to 32 in 2010). In addition, low landfill tipping fees encourage irresponsible recycling and waste disposal habits, and the lack of appropriate funding streams for waste management infrastructure add to our long-term concerns. With a recycling rate of only 10% (in 2007), our waste management system is dire. (Autoridad de Desperdicious Solidos, Solid Waste Management in Puerto Rico: Realities, Facts and Figures, Feb. 2010).

With such a low participation rate in recycling, the design of products and services must be inherently sustainable until policy and system solutions can be developed to nudge people to adopt more sustainable habits. This is already happening in Cabo Rojo, where the Orange Initiative (Iniciativa Naranja) has been implemented to financially incentivize recycling. While the policies are developed across the island for better recycling habits, the products and services that people use need to also be redesigned around the ideas of a closed-loop system and zero-waste. It is for these reasons that developing more sustainable goods, such as this paper-based cup lid, will help contribute to Puerto Rico's adoption of circular economy principles.

Initial Testing
Proof of concept testing has been performed using take-away cups from various vendors to demonstrate the function of the seal, and an initial prototype is planned. Testing showed excellent sealing with a minimal amount of lid-to-cup surface contact (approximately 1/4" depth). It should be noted that depending on the cup, a very small void may be created from the overlap of the paper due to the way paper cups are constructed; this can create a very small amount of leakage (slow drip, significantly less then through a straw hole). However, this may be addressed by a number of ways, including adding additional coating material to essentially "chamfer" the edge, tapering the paper before gluing to eliminate the overlap, or lining up the overlaps of the cup and the lid (with the help of visual indicators) to close any gap. These provisions will likely only be required for the sipping configuration, as straw lids are not currently 100% leak-free.

Company / Organization Name

Isla Innovations


Where are you / your team located?

Washington, DC and Puerto Rico

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

Currently, the take-away lids for coffee and fountain drink cups are made of plastic. Although technically recyclable, they most often get disposed of due to the nature of use (consumers are on the go and don’t always have convenient access to the proper recycling receptacles) and the fact that their recycling is generally not cost effective. Thus, we eliminate the use of plastic for this product and offer a paper-based lid solution.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Case 3 (take-away lids)

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

We chose to address Puerto Rico due to low recycling rates and limited waste management infrastructure. In addition, Isla Innovations has roots in Puerto Rico.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

After success of our pilot program, market penetration can be attained through partnership with one or more major coffee chains and/or fast food restaurant franchises, as the paper lids can follow the same distribution channels as the paper cups. We would then work closely with restaurant suppliers and paper cup manufacturers to enable accessibility of these lids to the mass restaurant market. Appropriately sized lids can be made for various cup sizes in order to meet specific restaurant needs.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.
  • Prototyping: You have conducted some small tests or experiments with prospective users and will continue developing idea through these tests.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

Through the New Plastics Economy Accelerator Program, our team can validate our design against the circular economy model with experts in the field and identify ideal partnerships. Early identification of a manufacturing partnership is crucial to validate design performance and manufacturing feasibility.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

This idea was inspired by the elimination of the plastic lid altogether while preserving the user experience. Additionally, the goal was to minimize environmental impact while accommodating the existing human and societal behavior by acknowledging that it may be difficult to get consumers to change their recycling and disposing habits. The nesting lid concept in particular was inspired by a time when one of our engineers accidentally got two nesting glass containers stuck together.

Tell us about your work experience

Isla Innovations is an innovation firm comprised of experienced engineers, designers, and business professionals and specializes in sustainability guidance and technology research.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

Isla Innovations is a worker-owned cooperative startup.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lauren Ito

Joshua Morales thanks for joining the challenge, and with such an innovative idea. Would love to know more about the viability of this solution with respect to cost per unit for manufacturers and brands. At what scale would this idea be a cost-effective solutions for big brands or small businesses?

Also, how is this solution positioned in the current marketplace? Have you identified any competitors? What are you offering in your solution that competitors have not tapped into?

Excited to learn more!

Photo of Timothy Lee

Lauren Ito , thanks for the comments! Based on our market research, standard-sized (16-22 oz) paper cups are ~1.5-2x more expensive than hot and cold lids (depending on size). However, smaller paper cups (9 oz) are significantly less expensive (~1.25x lids), which suggests that lids of this construction should be able to be produced at a comparable price point as existing cold and hot plastic lids.

Plastic lids are fabricated using completely different materials, equipment, and processes than paper cups. This solution allows cup manufacturers to streamline processes, which can have potential savings with respect to capital investments as well as maintenance, training, logistics, and labor costs. We have done limited market research at this point, but we have not seen other lids (other than soup container lids) that utilize the same materials, and even those are a different process (however, we've included those style lids in our proposal as an alternative). By utilizing the same basic construction and materials as standard paper cups, we believe this design offers significant value to paper cup manufacturers, particularly those with limited resources and those that do not currently offer plastic lid products.

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