Single-use, disposable plastic cups are a staple for kid’s parties and music festivals alike. However, much like plastic straws, consumers are slowly becoming more aware of their environmental impact. From the carbon emissions related to their production to the fact that they will spend (literally) hundreds of years in landfill. They can cause havoc and damage the planet immeasurably. Here we take a closer look…
Firstly, what are plastic cups made of?
Plastic cups are, unsurprisingly, made from plastic. However, there are several different types of plastic out there that can be molded into single-use cups. Often plastic cups are made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) resin. They are a great choice; thin, lightweight and perfectly safe to drink from. The iconic red Solo cup, on the other hand, is made from the more sturdy molded polystyrene.
So, why are plastic cups bad for the environment?
Production – The production of single use plastic cups is resource intensive and has various peripheral environmental impacts.
Disposal – Less than 1% of the cups produced are recovered and recycled. The rest are sent to landfills, incinerated, or pollute the natural environment.
Use – The use of some types of plastic cups may have a negative impact on human health.
What is the scale of the problem?
If we only look at plastic coffee cups, we can get a glimpse into the extent of our plastic cup addiction.
Coffee Cup Usage Around The World
- US: 50 Billion per year
- UK: 2.5 Billion per year (7 Million per day)
- Aus: 1 Billion cups per year
- Starbucks: 4 Billion per year
Do these numbers seem ridiculous? They should, because they are. Remember, these statistics are just based on coffee cup consumption. This doesn’t even consider all of the soda, smoothie, and water cup usage.
Plastic cups are not biodegradable (or compostable)
If an item is biodegradable, it can be broken down by microbes such as bacteria. To do so, an item must have come from nature. For example, materials such as wood, cotton and beeswax will all biodegrade – albeit in different timescales. Plastic cups, and plastic in general, will not biodegrade. Although they are derived from fossil fuels, they are very much deemed a human creation.
The terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are often used interchangeably but they do not mean the same thing. Every item that is biodegradable can not be composted – but to be compostable, an item must be biodegradable! This rules plastic cups out the composting pile, unfortunately.
Plastic cups will, however, break down – just not in the same way as in biodegradation. Instead, they will break up into smaller and smaller pieces over time. Rather than returning to nature to provide nourishment, microplastics can cause significant problems for the environment. For example, animals can mistake plastics for food and if swallowed these can cause internal blockages or, potentially, even choke them. At soil level, species can be affected resulting in a decline in land fertility. Plastics really can cause havoc, long after you have thrown them in the trash.