Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Compostable Cups - Are they as Good as they Sound?
Public awareness of plastic pollution, and the damage it's causing around the world, is at an all time high.
With this increased awareness has come the production of alternatives to single use plastic. One of these solutions has been to move to compostable and biodegradable products which use renewable resources as their base, as opposed to fossil fuels.
Compostable and biodegradable cups are being used by large companies to serve their coffee in, in an effort to appeal to environmentally concerned consumers. But are these compostable cups any better than the plastic ones they are replacing?
In this blog, we are going to examine what these biodegradable cups are made from, the validity of their eco friendly claims, and other questions surrounding the field.
What Are Compostable Cups Made From?
Let's start at the beginning - the materials used in compostable cups. To make things as factually accurate as possible, we are going to be using our compostable cups as the example.
This is because there is not one standard material used in all compostable cups, and they differ quite considerably in some cases.
In our biodegradable and compostable cups, PLA, or Polylactic acid, is used as the plastic alternative.
PLA is a bioplastic, which is manufactured from cornstarch. A bioplastic is a material that is similar to conventional plastic, but it uses biomass as the main compound. This differs from conventional plastic, where the main compound used is fossil fuel.
The obvious advantage of using biomass as the raw material, compared to crude oil, is that biomass is renewable. Using renewable materials means that production process is far more sustainable than manufacturing from non renewable resources.
Using non renewable fossil fuels means that the production process for conventional plastic is completely unsustainable, and will one day have to stop due to the raw material running out.
There are a few different estimates as to when this date will arrive, but many are suggesting it will be in our lifetime.
Are Compostable Cups Really Compostable?
Sort of. When we hear the word 'compostable', we think of the compost bin at the end of the garden. If you put our compostable cups into home compost, they will take a long time to break down, or not at all.
So when compostable cups talk about being compostable, they are referring to 'industrial' composting.
Industrial composting takes place in specialist units, where high temperature is prolonged and other conditions are standardised. In order for an item to be considered industrially compostable, it must pass the EN13432 standards for compostability.
Let's take a look at the table below, to show the key differences between home composting and industrial composting. The linked website is also a great source if you want to read more in depth analysis of composting standards.
Table 1: Comparison of Industrial and Home Compostability
|Industrial Composting: BS EN 13432||Home Composting: Vinçotte Certification Programme|
|Biodegradation||Test performed at 58 °C +/- 2 °C, carbon dioxide at least 90 % compared with control within 6 months (approx 182 days)||Test performed at ambient temperature (20 - 30 °C), carbon dioxide at least 90 % compared with control within 365 days|
|Disintegration||Test performed at whatever temperatures are achieved in vessels, each at least 140 litre capacity. At maximum of 12 weeks (approx 84 days) no more than 10 % of original dry weight of test material > 2 mm.||Test performed at 20 - 30°C in vessels each at least 140 litre capacity. At maximum of 26 weeks (182 days) no more than 10 % of original dry weight of test material > 2 mm.|
|Current certification and logos||
AFOR / Din Certco
We have compiled a few different sources to create the infographic below, which summarizes the key differences between home composting and industrial composting.
As we believe in openness, and actively encourage anyone to read more into the amazing topic of compostability and the potential it has, here are the sources we have used to compile the infographic above. There are some contradictions between sources, so we have tried our best to use the right information.
What's The Difference Between 'Biodegradable' And 'Compostable'?
The two words are being interchangeably used a lot these days by various marketing teams, so let's have a look at what they mean.
If an object is biodegradable, it will:
"Break down into CO2, water and biomass with the help of microorganisms".
If an object is compostable, it will:
"biodegrades in a set time frame, under set conditions, to form compost".
Let's take home composting as the first example. A home compostable item, such as home compostable carrier bags, should biodegrade within one year, under home composting conditions (roughly 20-30 degrees), to form compost.
The second example, industrial composting, can be used as well. If an item, such as our compostable cups, is to be considered compostable, they will biodegrade fully in 6 months, under industrial composting conditions (roughly 58 degrees), to form compost.
The main problem with a cup being advertised as compostable is that on a national scale, there is no infrastructure for industrial composting.
So if you think your compostable coffee cup will be composted if you throw it away into a normal bin, whether recycling or not, it will not be composted. It will be treated the same as any other waste, and in some cases will actually cause damage to the recycling process.
This is because compostable items are not the same as conventional plastic, and if a compostable bioplastic is found in the same batch as conventional plastic sent for recycling, the whole batch will be sent to landfill or be incinerated. This is known as 'recycling contamination'.
We solve this problem with our free post back scheme for compostable goods, LFHP Zero. We have partnered up with an industrial composting partner to ensure any compostable goods purchased from us will be fully composted, with zero waste going to landfill.
What's Wrong With Plastic?
There are loads of reasons as to why plastic is considered damaging to our environment, wildlife health and our own health. The first reason is a segment of something that is becoming more prominent in public awareness: plastic pollution. More specifically, the health of marine reefs.
With marine plastic pollution comes a level of toxicity which directly damages the health and productivity of coral reefs. Reefs studied across the Asia-Pacific region, an area of the globe which is home to half the world's reefs, shocked scientists who carried out the study.
In fact, the original aim of the research was not to focus on plastic pollution at all, but there was so much of it, the topic couldn't be ignored. The study found that out of 125,000 corals, a huge 89% of the reefs impacted by plastic were diseased. Contrastly, only 4% of reefs were diseased when they were not affected by plastic pollution.
"It's certainly well known that plastics abrade corals, create new openings. They basically tear open the skin of the coral and that can allow an infection from anywhere to start."
The second main theory as to why disease rates in coral reefs increase when they are affected by plastic, is to do with sunlight. In order for corals to function healthily, they need oxygen and sunlight. Plastic blocking either of these key building blocks can damage the reef involved.
Furthermore, structurally complex reefs (such as branching coral) are eight times more likely to entrap plastic than other reefs. Large, complex coral reefs provide microhabitats for reef animals. Take these reefs away, and a whole ecosystem goes with it.
As well as effects on the marine environment, plastic also has potentially dangerous consequences for humans. Whilst the majority of the attention goes to what we can see today, with our own eyes, there is an underworld of dangers from plastic toxicity we don't fully understand yet.
Both an excellent and shocking show, Netflix's 'Dirty Money' puts injustice in the spotlight, and it gave plastic pollution no exemption. Season 2 has an episode entitled 'Point Comfort', which shows the devastating effects the local plastic plant has on its citizens.
A less well known problem with fossil fuel based plastics are the controversial chemicals that are added to products. BPA, or 4,4’-dihydroxy-2,2-diphenylpropane, is found in many plastic products. In 2011, the EU banned BPA in baby bottles due to its potential hazardous effects. Some scientists believe it may have severe negative health impacts in humans. Potential health issues may include hormone related cancers, and disrupt puberty as well as the menopause.
Phthalates are another group of chemicals that are added to PVC plastics to soften them. Several of these chemicals have been classed as hormone disruptors, which are toxic to reproduction. This means they could have negative effects on fertility, or an unborn child.
It's crazy to think companies are actually increasing the amount of fossil fuel based plastics being produced. We need solutions that don't add contribute to the climate crisis, as well as the massive amounts of environmental damage caused by plastic pollution. Bioplastics have the potential to answer all the hard questions that are being asked on a global scale.
Plastic has led us to where we are as a society today.
Whether you agree with it or not, plastic has enabled us to take giant steps forward in terms of generating mass produced goods, which are affordable to the population at large.
With this, though, has seen the environment devastated with the effects of plastic pollution.
On top of the ever increasing environmental damage, has come the knowledge that plastic is dangerous to us as well.
Worst still, we don't fully understand the consequences of plastic toxicity. Where will we be in a decade, a century, if we keep on going the way we are?
If you would like to read more about going plastic free, and compostability, you can subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.