As a frequent cafe dweller I have noticed a growing number of 'compostable' coffee cups, lids and cutlery being distributed to the public as environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional plastics. I first got hold of one of these a month or so ago.. my partner ordered an iced coffee, forgetting that these are frequently served in plastic instead of glass. We would usually head to the nearest recycling bin with it but this time we were puzzled…and it has been sat on our coffee table ever since. I have been attempting to find a way of disposing of this cup through the finding answers for the following questions…
How do you recognise a ‘compostable’ plastic?
A compostable plastic cup can look exactly like a PET plastic cup, which only adds to the confusion. In order to advertise their 'green' components companies will usually add a form green colour, a leaf symbol of some other symbolism... On further investigation you may find the following sings:
- PLA - Polylactic acid, is a form of bioplastic produced from glucose.
- #7 - Plastics labelled under category number 7 are simply labelled as ’other’, which is confusing because it incorporates all plastics that lay outside of the 1-6 categories, including this plant-based bio plastic.
Terminology can be confusing and misleading. These are some simple definitions according to a key paper from International Solid Waste Association:
Biodegradable plastics: which can be broken down into their constituent monomers and metabolised naturally over a period of time;
Compostable plastics: which are capable of decomposing in a compost site into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass, leaving no toxic residue;
Bioplastics: plastics derived from plant-based polymers such as corn-starch, which depending on their make-up could be either biodegradable or compostable or exhibit the properties of conventional plastics, and;
Degradable plastics: which disintegrate into smaller fragments, undergoing significant changes in their physical structure under specific environmental conditions.
Resources on the differences and certifications of plastics can be acsessed on the Biodegradable Products Institute website.
Can I put this compostable cup in my home compost?
No. In order for a bioplastic cup to compost it needs an industrialised compost facility - temperatures up to 140 degrees celsius for several weeks.
How do I get my cup there?
If you put it in with your regular recycling bin it has the ability to contaminate the PET plastics, impacting on the quality of recycled plastics and causing a cost of separation and loss.
If you put this cup in with your regular waste it will go to landfill and without the correct conditions it may have a similar life span as your regular plastics
(know one is sure how long this takes, but it could be up to a 1000 years).
For some organisations a commercial composting arrangement can be made… but are the majority of products not designed to be taken away by unassuming customers? After numerous attempts to contact Vegware about how to dispose of my cup I am yet to have received an answer.
So is it more environmentally friendly?
Tricky one. We desperately need an alternative for plastics and so a plant based renewable one seems like an progressive step forward.
Vegware state on their website that there PLA cups produce '81% less carbon than plastic.'
Sounds great to me. However after some research I found that if a biodegradable plastic is somehow able to break down in the landfill.. then it could emit methane, a greenhouse has that is 23 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide. So it seems that its value lies in the resources surrounding it’s end-of-life options.
Further questions are raised when I look in to methods of production from some branded bioplastics, including genetically modified corn. Whilst other environmentalists are concerned over moral implications of creating plastics from food sources when so much of the world are suffering from hunger.
There appears to be no definite answer, however I can’t help but feel that companies manufacturing these bioplastic alternatives rely somewhat on greenwashing methods in order to be successful. This makes me feel uneasy.
Response from Vegware
"Unfortunately you would be unable to take just one or two products to an industrial facility yourself to dispose of them as they are only taken there as part of a waste collection contract. Hopefully the café you bought the product from will have a waste collector who takes our products and so it may be best to dispose of the cup there. Alternatively, if you know any other places which use Vegware they may also be willing to take the product from you. As a last resort you would need to dispose of this product in landfill."
What is the solution?
A trip back to the cafe where I purchased the coffee seems to be on the cards in hope that they have this waste disposal contract- this seems ridiculous for a take away product - and without any industrial composting facilities nearby very unlikely. In order to avoid this the answer is to simply bring your own cup, and when ordering to drink in request politely for no plastics.