Paper cups, not a choice?

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Just when you thought you were being most environmentally conscious by using paper cups, there comes evidence that even paper cups are lined with plastic! Yet, not all is lost, says Usha Hariprasad, as she describes several viable alternatives.

Recently I had been to a colleague’s house warming ceremony. The house was grand, the food was great, served in areca plates, cold lemon juice was poured into paper cups, and we got return gifts in paper bags. I was pleased. No plastic water bottles or cups, and everything eco-friendly, or so I thought.

Paper cups are not eco-friendly

Imagine my surprise when I read an article in The Hindu recently about the issues with paper cups. It mentioned that paper cups are lined with plastic or wax. This is done to make it sturdier and impervious to leaks. Unfortunately, this makes the product difficult to compost. The plastic and paper components of the cup need to be separated. This means these cups cannot be composted using your traditional backyard composting tools.

Not just this, there are more issues. Creating a paper cup is not that eco-friendly. An article titled ‘After all, your paper cup is not that eco-friendly’ in The Times of India reported that it takes around three lakh litres of water to make 60,000 cups, not to mention the raw materials – wood, oil, being used in the process, and the resulting pollutants it releases. Similarly, to recycle these cups it takes around 26,000 litres of water plus 250 kg of air pollutants that get released into the air. The greenhouse gas, methane, released is also worse – it is 23 times worse than carbon dioxide.

Paper cups usage

Yet, we continue to use paper cups thinking they are a better choice when compared to plastic. Not just individuals, organisations too continue to use them. The rules are not strict, and sometimes not clear too. Take the case of Bangalore. Though the Karnataka government has banned the use of plastics in government meetings and functions, paper cups are still not prohibited. Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) still uses them in meetings. However, plastic bottles have been banned, and BBMP has urged officials to bring their own water bottles.

Globally, there have been a lot of advancements. We know that paper cups lined with polyethylene are not biodegradable. However, if a city has a paper cup converter unit. then such cups can be recycled into other products. James Cropper recycling machines in UK just do this. The recycling units churn out paper from the disposable cups. First plastic and paper components of the disposable cups get separated. Plastic gets sent for recycling, and fibre is cleaned and mixed with dye, virgin fibres etc., to form pulp. The pulp then passes through various stages and finally through stream rollers, to become rolls of paper – the final product. The company has tied up with McDonald’s, Starbucks etc., to get the disposable cups. Rather a neat solution, isn’t it?

Some companies have tried to address the issue at source. Companies like Goldman and Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) have asked their staff to ditch plastic and bring their own bottles to office. It has also plans to introduce waste distribution system that can handle biodegradable cups, plates, and other crockery. BAML has also opted for eco-friendly options instead of single use and throw items.

In the US, incentives are offered for individuals to bring their own cups. Companies like Starbucks offer 10 per discount to customers for getting their own cups.

Alternatives to paper cups

Other alternatives too have been tried out. There are recyclable cups that have arrived in the market. Instead of plastic, new options have been tried. Cups like reCUP come with a resin coating that has 40 – 50 percent less plastic. This makes it easier for the recycling units to recycle. However, they still cannot be composted at home.
Zeus an Irish Global packing solutions has come up with a product called Treefree Cup. This is made from bagasse that is the left over extract from sugar cane processing. The lids of the cups are made from corn starch. Though their product does reduce the burden on trees, it still requires specialised plants for composting. Hence, Zeus ensures that collector bins are provided at outlets for collecting disposables. The bins are then taken for compost and taken to the correct waste facility. Similarly, a Berlin-based Startup called Kaffeeform uses ground coffee beans to produce cups. These cups are long lasting and reusable as well.

There is mention of corn starch cups as well. But once again, it does not solve the problem. Growing corn for creating cups is a strain on existing land and soil resources, and what’s more, it contaminates the soil as well as it requires and uses a lot of fertilisers and pesticides. And they have a similar problem. Products made from areca and corn-starch take time to disintegrate.

In The Netherlands, cup producer Beautiful cups and Renewi – a recycling and waste unit have come together to offer closed loop solution. Beautiful Cups made from 95 percent cardboard and 5 percent plastic, get recycled into toilet papers. The cups are collected in special bags and Renewi upcycles them into toilet paper. The plastic component of the cups is also recycled. Not just that, for every 7,000 cups they recycle, they plant one tree in a rainforest. This project has been rolled out in 10 countries so far.

There are other smart solutions too. In Germany a Munich based start-up called Recup has come up with a new deposit system to ensure the cups are reused. You as a customer pay a deposit, get a plastic cup at a café, and after use return it to the café. The deposit gets returned to you, the cups returned get washed and reused. More than 1,000 cafes have joined this venture, and they are mapped via an app of Recup. So the customer can return the coffee cups at any of these cafes. There is one problem though. Their lids are still not washable, hence not safe for reuse, and so customers have to consider that.

The way forward

Recently, a Chennai family demonstrated that a plastic free wedding is possible. V.C. Kannan and his family planned all the details from shopping to invitations to food, to eliminate plastic and ensure zero waste wedding. Tumblers were used in place of cups and bottles, banana leaves served as plates, and eco-friendly cards were used for invitations. When a big event like weddings can be planned systematically to eliminate waste and plastic, then why can’t we as individuals strive to make small changes? Can’t we use steel cutlery and mugs? Can’t we afford to take our own mugs and bottles? Think about it. After all, change starts with us individuals.


Usha Hariprasad

Usha Hariprasad is a freelancer who is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writing about travel related destinations around Bangalore at ‘Citizen Matters’. Currently, she works in a trekking organisation.

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