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Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Biodegradable Cups - How Do They Work?
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Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Biodegradable Cups - How Do They Work?

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With the rise of plastic free cups coming to fruition, biodegradability is a word that is being used a lot. Being biodegradable is an amazing quality to have in a product, but there are problems associated with it.

We will go over several key aspects of all things biodegradable, compostable and plastic free. In particular, we will talk about how biodegradable cups work, what they are made from, and any other common questions.

We will also give an example of how we use biodegradable cups in our 'Gifts For Students' Collection, so you get an idea of how we are using sustainable materials in our gifts. 

Question 1: What Are Biodegradable Cups?

Our biodegradable cups are just like standard plastic cups, but they are made from cornstarch instead. They can biodegrade into all natural components, and are much more environmentally friendly than normal plastic cups.

As well as being biodegradable, our cups are also compostable. When you use our free post back scheme for your compostable cups, LFHP Zero, we guarantee they will be fully composted with zero waste going to landfill.

This actively fights plastic pollution from single use plastic, and stops plastic ending up in our oceans.

Question 2: What Are Biodegradable Cups Made From?

Our biodegradable cups are made from PLA, or Polylactic acid. PLA is a bioplastic, which means it is produced from biomass, in this case starch.

This is compared to 'conventional' plastic, which is usually produced from fossil fuels such as crude oil.

Bioplastics have become increasingly popular with the demand for materials that don't contribute to the plastic pollution crisis. Having a material that is made from sustainable, renewable resources is also a key issue, as one day we will run out of fossil fuels.

Question 3: Why Is 'PLA' A Good Bioplastic?

PLA is the second most produced bioplastic in terms of volume, just behind thermoplastic starch. The reasons behind the success of PLA are from its characteristics:

  • High strength - this means PLA can be subject to great applied loads without failure. 
  • High stiffness - this means PLA is difficult to bend or stretch. This is in comparison to other fossil fuel based plastics such as Polystyrene.
  • Less energy is used in the production of PLA than in other plastics, both biobased and fossil fuel based.

Although these characteristics might not be so important for cups on a small scale, they all count in mass production. Each quality is of importance when you think of how many cups are being manufactured every year, and they all affect the cost of production on some level. 

Below we can see another source, the EU Bioplastics group, has PLA as the bioplastic with the second highest production capacity in 2019. The global production capacity is not the actual amount produced, but the potential amount that could be made if required.

 how much bioplastic is made every year?

Question 4: What Does Biodegradable Mean?

As you can see from the chart above, there are a few key terms that are important to understanding biodegradability. Let's start with the definition for 'biodegradable'.

If a material is biodegradable, it will:

"Break down into biomass, CO2 and water with the help of microorganisms".

This is great, as it meas the biodegradable material will break down into natural components.

This is unlike non-biodegradable plastics, which will never biodegrade. Instead, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Eventually, microplastics are formed.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5mm. Microplastics wreak havoc on the marine environment from entering the marine food chain. They are ingested by zooplankton, and through the process of microplastic trophic transfer, accumulate in animals at higher trophic levels.

Levels of plastic have been found in seals from this process, as well as in fish that humans eat such as cod.

Question 5: What Is The Difference Between 'Biodegradable' And 'Compostable'? 

So you've seen the latest high street coffee shop advertise their cups as 'compostable'. You've texted all your mates marvelling at the prospect that a coffee cup can be compostable, and then you get a text back from your resident eco-warrior mate. 

You - "OMG have you seen Bosta Coffee are using compostable cups instead of plastic ones?? What a great idea!"

Your resident eco warrior mate - "Ummmmm yeah so it's a good idea, but the problem is they will still most likely end up in landfill, and not biodegrade. Like fossil fuel based plastics, they will sit in landfill for a long time and potentially contribute to polluting the natural environment."

You - "What?! How are Bosta coffee still allowed to call their cups compostable then if they are just going to end up in landfill anyway?"

Resident eco warrior -"Well, they have the potential to be composted, but if you throw them in the bin, there is no composting service on a national scale that will separate your compostable cup from normal plastic cups. So they will probably go to landfill anyway."

You -"Soooo...if I can't throw them away, what shall I do with them? Can I use my home compost bin?"

Resident eco warrior -"Hmm maybe they will compost in your home compost bin, but probably not. What you need is an 'industrial composter' to process them for you, as the cups are 'industrially compostable' and not 'home compostable'. In industrial composting plants, there are prolonged high temperatures, which is what is needed to break down the compostable cups. If you put them in your home compost bin, they will either take a really long time to break down, or not at all."

You -"So what do I do? How do I compost my cups?"

Eco warrior -"Well, I've just stumbled across this business called LFHP, and..."

Ok, so that last bit is made up, but the rest is true. In order to process our biodegradable and compostable cups, you need industrial composting. We have developed LFHP Zero for every compostable item in any of our eco-friendly gift set.

With every order including a compostable item, including the compostable cups, we send a compostable mailing bag. When you're done with your compostable cups, simply send the bag back to us, and we will hand it over to our industrial composting partner.

We guarantee any compostable goods sent back to us via this post back scheme will be fully composted, with zero waste going to landfill. Zero waste, zero problems. 

Gifts For Students: Biodegradable Cups Case Study

To see our biodegradable cups in action, we are going to use our Settling Into Uni Kits, which are part of our Gifts For Students Collection.

The biodegradable cups are present in the Student Care Packages, to help your first year student move with ease into their new social life.

Our Gifts For Students are designed around making the transition into Uni as easy and successful as possible, so you can focus on getting the details sorted.

Question 6: Are All Bioplastics Biodegradable? 

The short answer is no, not all bioplastics are biodegradable. Bioplastics such as bio based PE, or bio based Polyethylene, do not biodegrade.

The chart below is a great way of showing common different types of plastic, and where they fit into when it comes to source material and biodegradability.

different types of plastic

The category of plastic that we think of when we hear the word 'plastic', is non biodegradable fossil fuel based plastic.

Plastics such as PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, make up huge amounts of the plastic being produced today. It is fossil fuel based, which means it is commonly produced from crude oil. Because of this, the fossil fuel based plastic industry contributes hugely to global emissions, and the climate crisis

Question 7: What Is Wrong With Plastic?

In order to assess what's wrong with fossil fuel based non biodegradable plastics, we need to look at the life cycle assessment, or LCA. There are many reasons why we prefer bioplastic to fossil fuel based plastic, but we are going to focus specifically on the carbon footprint of both types of plastic.

Every step in the conventional plastic manufacturing process is carbon intensive, which means producing plastic has a large carbon footprint. The petroleum needs to be extracted from oil sites, and then distilled. When the resins are formed, they need to be transported to the product manufacturers.

All of these steps add up to generate a massive 1.8 billion metric tonnes of CO2 every year. In comparison, swapping fossil fuel based PE (polyethylene) for bio based PE could save more than 42 million tonnes of CO2 being released every year. This is the equivalent of the CO2 emissions for 10 million flights every year. 

Even though the bioplastic items have a much smaller carbon footprint than conventional plastic, the process of producing bioplastic is not yet carbon neutral. This is due to the manufacturing, transport and other processes which are required to make bioplastic.  

However, as technology moves to green energy from renewable sources, the potential for a completely carbon neutral process is entirely possible. This is in contrast to the production of fossil fuel based plastics. 

The graph below shows the Global warming potential (GWP) of PLA, vs petroleum based fossil fuels such as PE and PET.

 

PLA vs PET

GWP is "a measure of how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide (CO2). The larger the GWP, the more that a given gas warms the Earth compared to CO2 over that time period."

As is shown clearly in the graph, PLA surpasses petroleum based plastics in both Cumulative energy demand, as well as GWP. 

Conclusion

It only takes a walk down the street, or a couple of minutes flicking through instagram to see promises of the magic wonders that biodegradability offers. Ironically, biodegradable items have existed long before humans were around.

Basically everything non man-made is biodegradable to some extent. Think about trees, fruit and many other objects in the natural world.

We don't need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to tap into the wonders of the natural environment. The technology of biodegradability is surrounding us every day!

If we can create products that follow the rules of the natural world, our planet will happily work with us. Using Our Gifts For Students as an example, creating gifts that are sustainable, as well as high value, is possible. 

Gifts For Eco Warriors

Our collection of gifts for eco warriors show that sustainability is possible when selecting joy bringing gifts. 

Our gifts for eco warriors are designed to be kind to the environment, by reducing waste sent to landfill through developing plastic free packaging. 

If you would like to read more about biodegradable alternatives to single use plastic, you can subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.