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Recycling, the Myths and Reality

compostable_cups-1 Recycling Paper Cups

The paper cup love it or hate it’s part of our daily life and whilst we have adopted it as part of our culture it seems we have not embraced its environmental effect. So why is this?

Is it the paper cup that is the guilty culprit or is it us?. Lets look at the facts. First of all it’s disposable, that’s obvious, but so is the modern nappy, but what is it that makes it such an enemy of the environmentalists? The disposable nappy is made of greater amount of plastic than a paper cup and they all end up in the land fill with the same environmental effect as a paper cup, but there is silence from the green lobby on recycling disposable nappies


So who is at fault. Lets look firstly at how the paper cup is made . Its simply made in the same way as your milk carton., OJ carton or yogurt pot and many other packaging products supplied by the food industry. The very fine layer of PE on the inner layer of the board  makes the pot or cup suitable to hold a food product by making it waterproof . The yogurt pot is even more advanced using not only PE but and additional film to create a food grade barrier, so giving a longer shelf life for the item packed in it. That makes it virtually impossible to recycle, but again there is no outcry over this.  Making the cups using this mass produced board is cheap and simple, so why does the industry not adopt a greener approach?

The argument put forward is there is no other alternative , that is not the case . There are currently three routes that can be taken to achieve a greener cup. One is using an additive  that is mixed with the PE and whilst it does not make the cup compostable it does make it biodegradable. If the cups are just thrown away they will over a period of time given the right conditions breakdown and degrade. This technology is not new but it needs more development work, though it has been accepted and required by law in some Middle East countries. The second approach is to replace the PE lining with a natural starch called Poly Lactic Acid (PLA). This no doubt gives a green cup as it makes it 100% biodegradable and some would argue compostable. The final route to achieve the most environmentally sustainable cup  is the 100% compostable cup made using wood pulp, This is the newest and most exiting product that is now being developed, but it is going to have some huge mountains to climb as like all new products it just does not give the added marketing and brand awareness that is now so important to the coffee chains, but who knows that might come in due course.  So why are do we not use the cups using any of these routes. The simple fact is that it all comes down to  to price. Yes, the PLA cups are about 20% to 30%  more expensive than the PE cup and there is also the argument that maybe the basic starch that the PLA is made from should be used to feed people and not be used to make biodegradable cups. The chemical route is no doubt a lot cheaper but still adds around 15% to the price of the PE cup and the best of all of them the 100% compostable cup is about 30% to 40% more expensive. So economically you can see the problem 

So we can make more environmental cups, but what is wrong with what we have currently got. Simply its in the words “To Go” which is used to describe this. It is a product that is consumed on the move, so when finished it has to be disposed of. No one is going to go back to the cafe they got the cup from and hand it back, so the disposal of this waste is ad-hoc . You pass a bin and throw it in and from there its all downhill. But lets go back to the OJ carton and the milk carton . We dutifully take it out to our recycling bin and if it is like our local council it’s collected and we are assured it goes off for recycling, so why is the paper cup not treated in the same way despite us putting it in a bin? It is not made any differently from the OJ carton or the milk carton, but for some reason a myth has grown up around this product that it cannot be recycled. Does that mean all our OJ cartons and milk cartons are heading off to the landfill as well?

Again this could be a cost issue.  A recent conversation with a local council, which give them their due are hot on this issue of recycling, all came down to the same thing, the high cost of the recycling. Recently they introduced green bins, which included the collection of paper cups, but they had to be withdrawn as the cost of separating the non green waste from the green waste was prohibitive for them. So despite their enthusiasm of the council they were defeated by us the public

So this is just not about the paper cup, its about us and how we approach this problem. By all means lobby for a greener cup, but this will not happen overnight. We need to have the systems in place to cope with what we currently have available and it is patently obvious that these are failing.  Where i live over 76% of waste is recycled, so it shows it can be done and with more education and a better recycling chain this can only improve. Maybe if we want to dispose of this type of waste then we may have to face the fact that this will have to be funded by us the consumer.

The discussion continues