Are Eco-friendly Products Really Eco-friendly? Part2: Paper Cups VS Plastic Cups
Let’s take a moment to compare the differences between disposable plastic and disposable paper cups. Though many people immediately assume that the paper cup is a more environmentally friendly option, this is not a clear-cut case.
There are obvious and commonly known downsides to using plastic.
Firstly, plastics take a very long time to degrade - up to 90 years depending on the type. Secondly, the production process itself is incredibly inefficient. Thirdly, plastics are made with non-renewable resources, and can have potential health risks. As plastics break down over time, tiny particles enter the ecosystem and in particular our waterways. They are then consumed by animals with sometimes fatal results. As humans at the top of the food chain, we also inevitably ingest whatever is being eaten by the creatures further down the chain. Though some plastics can be recycled, those numbered 3, 6 and 7 cannot.
We might imagine that disposable paper cups are an improvement on plastic when it comes to recycling. The reality of the situation, however, is quite different. The majority of paper cups are lined with a plastic lining to make them waterproof, meaning that they are not recyclable alongside normal paper products, nor are they biodegradable. In Asia, for example, only 10% of the recycling facilities have the capacity to separate out the lining of the cup, so they are simply being incinerated and sent on to landfill. Another aspect that most people are unaware of is that in order to adhere to hygiene requirement, the majority of paper cups are made with virgin paper. In other words, they are made from pure tree pulp and not recycled materials. From this perspective, the sustainable credential of the paper cup is pretty low.
In recent years, there has been much hype with paper cups lined with biodegradable plastic, which pretty much on the surface, would solve these problems. Let’s examine if this is really the “God-sent” solution for paper cups.
PLA or polylactic acid, a biodegradable type of plastic made from plant material, is a more recent development. It appears just like a conventional oil-based plastic, but breaks down at greater speed. PLA is also far from perfect, as it will only decompose in a commercial composting environment. Throw it in your home compost or on the landfill and you will be waiting a very long time for it to break down! PLA feels and looks convincingly like conventional plastic, so unfortunately a bird consuming an item made of PLA is just as likely to choke and die as with an ordinary plastic. As these PLA plastics are usually indicated as #7, it will hence, be disposed rather than recycled.
It is clear from all of the above that disposable paper cups simply do not prove to be a more eco-friendly alternative to the disposable plastic cup. The obvious solution is to turn to reusable options. Some establishments now offer discounts for those who bring their own cup, so if you can’t forego that extra cup of coffee when you are out and about, how about carrying your own cup with you? In the end both the environment and your wallet will benefit.
Saving the environment starts from YOU today.