The single use coffee cup captures our love affair with consumption and a linear economy that sees most of the world’s production of things end up as rubbish. As Plastic Free July ends, it is becoming clear that there is an increasing need to rethink how we throw away disposable products and instead promote an economy that reclaims waste as a resource.
We have thrown away an ocean of plastic that is contaminating our food systems. Coffee cups have been in the news recently, highlighting the evolution of plastic and some of the confusion around the various terms used in the waste management industry. There are recyclable, biodegradable and compostable versions of waste.
The paper cup came into being to prevent the spreading of disease at communal water taps. It evolved into the polystyrene cup until the late 1980’s when a multinational coffee chain, promoted by the impact of polystyrene on the environment, made the change to paper cups with a plastic lining. The next disposable cup innovation hit the market in 2009. These compostable cups use PLA bioplastic that is manufactured from a rapidly renewable resource and not oil. What this means is that these cups, and other similar single use food containers can be diverted from landfill.
Unravelling the language of waste is as complicated as working out what can be thrown away where. Notably, it does not matter how many compostable or degradable boxes plastic products may tick, it is how they are disposed of that is crucial.
Biodegradable means it can be broken down by living things, usually microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. When it comes to plastic, the meaning can be a little more complicated. Plastic requires specific conditions, like temperature and moisture for effective break down of the product. In short, plastic that is not disposed of correctly and ends up as litter will simply not break down.
In Australia, biodegradable usually refers to plastics that are compostable which means they will break down when disposed of in a home compost bin or commercial composting facility. Standards are however voluntary. Then there are terms such as degradable, which means the plastic will break up but will in reality not go away and is ending up in the food chain.
The plastic conundrum cannot be thrown out or ignored. Instead local shoppers, food producers and markets such as Harvest Launceston need to transform our economy away from the single use linear system and put pressure on local councils, rubbish collectors, waste management and producers of plastic to return, reuse, refill and where necessary refuse single use unsustainable plastics.