Green Hot Cups

Appeared in Vall-E-Vents, the San Fernanado Valley Sierra Club newsletter, Nov-Dec, 2007

Also see All That Shines Is Not Gold

Hot Beverage Cups Go Green
(#12 of the Plastic Plague Series)
Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

If your paper cup has a plastic lining, it will end up in the landfill.

If your paper cup has a plastic lining, it will end up in the landfill.

For the very first time, certain paper packaging products with a shiny resin lining are being produced that can be recycled or composted.

The obstacle to recycling and composting has been the petroleum-based polyethylene moisture barrier that lines hot coffee cups and many other paper food/drink packaging containers.  Since the polyethylene resin resists biodegradation, it fails to meet standards for compostability and is an unacceptable contaminant that precludes diversion to the paper recycling waste stream. (Click for related article).

A paper hot cup is the first in a series of novel resin-lined paper products dubbed “ecotainers” that are being rolled out in a joint effort by two companies, International Paper and DaniMer Scientific. The new cup lining is based 99% on the corn-derived resin called PLA (for polylactic acid) that has been tweaked chemically to produce a coating that sticks well to paper (PLA alone sticks poorly). Part of the good news is that petrochemicals do not contribute to the 1% of synthetic chemicals added to the PLA, according to DaniMer’s President. The hot cup not only meets international BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) standards for compostability, but is also “repulpable” so can even be recycled in the paper waste stream. Look for cups bearing the logo of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters who are the first to adopt the new technology.

A second fully biodegradable & compostable hot cup on the market has solved the polyethylene lining dilemma by eliminating the lining completely. Brought to us by World Centric, the cup is made from 100% bagasse, the sugarcane fiber left over once the sugarcane juice is extracted. The cup comes without a label and sports a less high-tech look and feel than theecotainer. Although it is soak proof, hot beverages do create some “perspiration” on the outside. However, some big environmental pluses might easily make up for these esthetic drawbacks. Bagasse is sometimes eliminated by open-air incineration after the sugarcane juice is extracted, so converting it into cups both makes more complete use of a natural resource and rids a source of air pollution. Plus, no trees are ever cut down!

Forward looking companies as described here will no doubt continue their quest for the perfect, environmentally friendly hot cup and make it available to retailers. Now it is up to us consumers to tell our favorite gourmet coffee stores that we want our cup of coffee “green” whether we drink it black or with cream!

To participate in a California-based statewide plastics reduction campaign, contact Earth Resource Foundation or call (949) 645-5163.

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