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Compostable cups. The green alternative? Not really.

Published: 21 January 2020

Compostable Cups Compostable cups?

In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart asks if compostable cups are really the green alternative people think.

You can follow Denis on his Facebook page to keep up with information about Recycling issues.

Unless you can guarantee they will be treated in an industrial composting plant, they aren’t going to get composted. In which case, they can only become rubbish, since they can’t be recycled – unlike normal takeaway cups, which can go in one of Exeter’s orange banks or at various coffee outlets.

So what we have is a cup that was brought into being – using incredibly energy- and water-intensive processes and using monocultures at the expense of biodiversity – that is going to be used precisely once before being burned or dumped.

Since nothing in Devon goes to landfill, the only advantage they have over normal takeaway cups is that they break down a bit faster when they’re littered in the environment.

Why always gear our green efforts around the worst case scenario of an item’s end-of-life? We have to flip this around, think about how things are brought into being.

Of course, coffee production itself has a considerable environmental impact, so any effort with the cup (as with any food packaging) is only looking at a small part of the picture. And producing these cups isn’t even green. They’re made to not last, and anything designed for single-use is overdrawn on its environmental bank balance for the duration of its life.

Nothing single-use can be a solution to a problem posed by any other single-use item.

The thing is, if every coffee outlet stopped selling drinks in takeaway cups, their sales would plummet; so-called ‘green’ cups encourage the continued consumption of beverages for those with guilty feelings about buying takeaways.

Someone suggested we put compostable coffee cup bins in the street. Aside from the issues posed by these bins being contaminated with non-compostable waste, it’s simply not enough to focus our environmental efforts on how single-use items can be processed when they become waste.

We need to take a whole-picture view and live by the mantra: ‘Single-use is no use.’

So what are the alternatives? Sitting down for a coffee in a china mug or, if it must be a takeaway, taking our own reusable cup.

We’re all human and occasionally we forget our cup. When we do, perhaps we should forgo that one takeaway coffee? But you could always set yourself a reminder on your phone to grab your cup, or get into the habit of leaving it by the front door the night before.

Remember, though: if you do forget your cup, don’t just buy another reusable one. Each cup needs to be reused many times before its environmental impact becomes less than that of a disposable cup. Half-a-dozen unused reusable cups sitting in the cupboard is a hoard that needs sharing among the needy.

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