You may have noticed this summer, whilst sitting in the glorious sunshine and sipping on your pint or your Aperol Spritz, that many hospitality ventures now use bioplastic cups - cups that boldly state, “I am not a plastic cup”. Millions of customers are happily sipping from their guilt-free plastic cups, unaware that there is a darker side to this “magic plastic”. PLA was supposed to save the world, however it has quickly become part of the problem.
While the original intention behind making bioplastic was (hopefully) good, what we have ended up with is a complex material that is widely available, and near impossible to dispose of correctly as a consumer. It contaminates recycling and takes 80+ years to biodegrade without the use of a commercial composter.
Compostable plastic packaging has even been criticised by a committee of MP’s - they stated that the use of ‘industrially’ compostable packaging should not be promoted in the UK because the waste management infrastructure to deal with it is ‘not fit for purpose’.
People are unknowingly causing more damage than good to the environment by using PLA cups, because they were misled by a number of very successful greenwashing campaigns.
“Greenwashing: disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”
Fig 1. Images like this one are misleading to the customer. It does not clearly state that it needs to be commercially composted.
Some companies have started printing statements on their cups that they are “commercially compostable” however these companies have yet to provide a solution for customers to dispose of these cups as they cannot go in the bin, or the recycling. When bioplastics are disposed of in landfills they are more likely to produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide.
Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term. At least 25% of today's global warming is driven by methane from human actions.
There’s no doubt, bioplastics are still plastics. Just because some are made from plants or have the potential to biodegrade under limited conditions, they can’t be seen as "planet-safe." For the ones that claim to biodegrade or compost, the fine print is crucial.
In the wild, it takes at least 80 years for PLA to decompose, which means that in the sea and on land it contributes not only to conventional petroleum-based plastics but also to environmental pollution from plastics and above all microplastics. For this reason, PLA should not be thrown into nature, into home composters or into organic waste, just like other plastics. This leads us to the question of what happens to the PLA as soon as we throw it away?
Can PLA and other bioplastics be degraded in all composting plants?
The answer is no. A survey carried out by the German Environmental Aid (DUH), counting almost 1,000 German composting plants for bio waste and green waste, showed that 95% of these composting plants cannot compost bioplastics in accordance with the standards. Also, 80% of these composting plants, which compost German bio waste and green waste, found bioplastics to be an interfering substance. This shows that although PLA can be biologically degraded in theory, in practice the corresponding infrastructure for the biological degradation of PLA and other bioplastics is lacking.
What about paper?
Paper has been touted as a solution to replacing plastic, but this is also problematic. Global forests play a unique role, supporting a stunning array of biodiversity, removing and storing carbon, providing sustenance and livelihood to indigenous peoples. The pulp and paper industry is responsible for substantial impacts to the environment, including climate change.
Paper has lower CO2 emissions per tonne but more material is required to achieve the stiffness than a plastic equivalent. In an event industry context, paper cups are lined with plastic or PLA to ensure that they do not leak or degrade whilst being used, meaning that they are a mixed material, which is not recyclable or compostable.
Theoretically, PLA plastic is a renewable bioplastic because it’s sourced from the lactic acids of renewable plants. However, these plants are only the starting point for making PLA plastic; many additive chemicals and intense processes are also used. As such, while the PLA in a PLA product might be considered biodegradable, additives, such as impact modifiers, may be less or not biodegradable.
On top of this, there are many artificial and unnatural processes that go into making a PLA product, including fermentation, polymerization or condensation, and the use of chemical assistants. These processes may chemically affect the biodegradability of certain components, again hurting the environmental friendliness of the PLA product.
In the end, although PLA may seem like it should be biodegradable because it’s made from plants, you have to consider the biodegradability of the other production materials and processes.
What else are we doing about it?
Throughout the year our Events Team travels up and down the country serving delicious drinks at a wide variety of events; from cricket matches to car shows, weddings to work parties, we are dedicated to delivering a great experience without costing the earth.
Another reason we do not use PLA is because it looks and feels like plastic. This leads to it being indistinguishable from PET and other plastics, both at events, where it can confuse event goers from using the correct bins and waste separation efforts on-site, and in waste processing facilities. Composting facilities cannot differentiate between bioplastics and conventional plastics. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) states in its most recent guidance that compostable plastics should be avoided where there is potential for them to contaminate conventional plastics recycling. Many events still use some plastic.
To help close the loop and increase the sustainability of our cups, we have partnered with Green Goblet who collect our glasses, wash them and return them to us at the next event. Their Ecocups are made of strong, durable material and designed to last multiple uses and washes. Most cups can take up to 100 washes in an industrial machine.
Very rarely we work at an event where we cannot use reusable cups, in this situation we have made the decision to use PET. Recycling bins are widely available at these events, and customers are familiar with traditional recycling methods. We have deemed this a better solution until a day comes where naturally biodegradable, or mainstream recycling compatible bioplastics become available. Once they have, we’ll be first in line!
The Future: Where Do We Go From Here?
At Jim & Tonic we are working hard to provide sustainable solutions for our customers. We provide PLA-free coffee cups, so that you don’t have to worry about where and when you can dispose of them. We will also be providing customers with discounts if they bring in their own mugs or reusable cups. We’re even investigating the possibility of using seaweed based packaging
Transparency is important to us. And whilst the perfect solution may not yet exist, we want you to know that we are committed to reducing our impact on the environment, and providing our customers with high quality, sustainable solutions that don’t cost the earth.