Compostable cups create less plastic waste than regular drinks cups but they often use more energy to produce and most cups can only be composted in an industrial composter.
In the midst of a seemingly never ending pandemic, a takeout cup of tea or chai latte has been one of the only treats and one of the only routines that has some semblance of normality.
Graves Park Cafe, Costa and a Kobi and Chai (a newly opened cafe round the corner from us) have become little sanctuaries, where a warm cup of tea and piece of cake offer some comfort and something to do, especially during winter.
But, before the pandemic, I took my trusty refillable bamboo cup everywhere, now, most coffee shops don’t allow reusable cups. This is for the obvious reason that they may transmit the virus if they’ve not been cleaned properly. But, as of August, Costa and Starbucks were allowing refills, but that was August and that seems a very long time ago now.
It’s widely thought that refilling coffee cups is actually safe, so next time I go out, I’ll see which places accept refills.
Anyway, onto the question in hand… how eco friendly are compostable cups? As with most questions like this, it depends on a lot of things – mainly on the type of cup and how it’s composted.
Plastic made from plants must be better for the environment, surely?
Plastic made from plants is, in theory, better for the environment, but according to top scientists at Sheffield University, it takes more energy to create bioplastic than it does to create regular plastic. Making oil out of plants requires more energy because the plants need to be turned into oil before being turned into plastic.
It’s not just the process of turning plants into oil that makes the cups more expensive and require significants amount of energy to produce, the crops that are eventually used in the drinks cups have to be grown – using land, water, labour and fertiliser. This goes a long way to explain why bioplastics only accounted for 1% of the global plastics market in 2018.
Also, there’s a certain amount of greenwashing that goes into compostable plastic too. Many bioplastics will only compost in very specific conditions, and will often only do this in an industrial composter. So unless you know someone with an industrial composter, you might be waiting a while for your coffee cup to transform in your compost bin.
Even if you do have your own compost bin, a compostable cup could still take months to break down into compost. Most councils won’t take drinks cups in food waste collections as they take much longer to breakdown into compost when compared to regular food waste.
I bought a chai latte from Kobi and Chai on the 23rd December 2020 and put the cup in our compost bin in the same day. I plan to see how long it takes to decompose, although compost does take it’s time to break down in winter.
So what about biodegradable drinks cups?
Some drinks cups are labelled as biodegradable, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Biodegradable simply means that they will break down quicker than non-degradable plastic, which can take centuries to break down. Once broken down, many types of biodegradable plastic are still plastic, but now in micro pieces which are harder (if not impossible) to clean up.
Are recyclable drinks cups a thing?
Nope – regular drinks cups are made from so many different materials that they’re virtually impossible to recycle. Plus, once they’re covered in frothy milk and coffee the plastic lining is contaminated and therefore unable to be recycled anyway.
They are so difficult to recycle that only 1 in 400 drinks cups are recycled into something new.
One way to cut the amount of natural resources that are needed to make cups would be to use recycled paper to make the cups. One company, Frugalpac, is using recycled paper to make their coffee cups more environmentally friendly.
In an interview with The Guardian, Malcolm Waugh, chief executive of Frugalpac said, “Our answer was to redesign the cup by scrapping the laminated virgin paperboard and instead make the cup out of 96% recycled paper with no waterproofing chemicals, and then lightly attach a separately made plastic food grade liner.”
He predicts that using recycled paper to produce coffee cups would save a million trees a year in Britain and more than 200 million worldwide.
Why are disposable cups so bad for the environment?
Apart from the reasons mentioned above, disposable cups take a tonne of natural resources to make. In the UK we get through 2.5 billion takeaway cups every year, and this stat is before the pandemic hit so the number is much likely to be larger now, when the only option for most tiers is a takeaway drink.
As well as using millions of trees every year, one study found that almost 1.5 billion litres of water are needed yearly just to make enough cups to supply the UK. The same study revealed that each cup has a carbon footprint of up to 60.9 grammes of carbon dioxide.
So there you go, drinks cups are awful and by writing this post I feel I have squished my one lockdown pleasure. Let’s pray to everything we do or don’t believe in that the cups in my compost bin compost down to nothing in the next few weeks so I can buy all the chai lattes again!