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a little goes a long way

Wednesday, December 07, 2011
So… what’s the story with the BioCup? Aren’t most takeaway coffee cups made from paper these days? If paper is an organic product then it’s got to be biodegradable and compostable right? What about recycling? The cup I bought the other day had the chasing arrows logo printed on it so they must be recyclable?

Why are two black sheep using the BioCup then? Is it just some clever marketing spin or green washing designed to appeal to consumers striving to make good purchasing decisions? If all paper cups are biodegradable, compostable and recyclable then what difference does it make?

My name is Nic and I am someone who is passionate about making sensible consumer decisions. I am also the rep for BioPak, the company forging a new direction toward sensible, sustainable packaging in Australia. I am asked the aforementioned questions on a daily basis. So, for the customers of two black sheep I will try to bust a few of these myths but firstly, I want to start by talking about some big issues.

In my opinion, one of the main issues in society is our obsession with convenience. It is the precursor to excessive consumption and a by-product of our need to feel and look busy all of the time. Disposable, single use packaging is a legacy of our convenience obsession and one of the high profile offenders is the takeaway coffee cup.

The concept of single use packaging has been around since the 1950’s. Since this time there has been one very handy material at the centre of the packaging revolution.  It has had a huge impact on our lives with all of its many practical applications. Its great stuff but unfortunately it has some rather large setbacks. You guessed it, plastic!

1) Regular plastic is made from fossil based resources such as oil and natural gas. According to the experts we have reached and passed our peak oil production capacity and as of about a year ago the globe is on the downhill slide toward running out. Not cool for our grand kids!

2) Regular plastic persists in the environment for hundreds of years.

3) Regular plastic is not recyclable it is only down cycled into products of lesser value/quality. Once discarded your plastic water bottle will never be a bottle again.

4) Plastic is a new material in terms of the human evolution timescale. We are only now beginning to understand some of the health problems associated with eating and drinking from plastic.

Think about these things the next time you’re walking down the supermarket aisle.

So what has this got to do with coffee cups made from paper? Every coffee cup on the market, unless it is a BioCup or explicitly identifies itself as being made from PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) has a plastic coating on the inside of the cup.  This means that these cups are not biodegradable, they are not compostable, they are made using non-renewable resources and despite the recycling logo often printed on these cups, they cannot be recycled, 1.5 billion of them wind up in Australian landfill each year!

In contrast the BioCup is made from annually renewable resources.  The lining on the inside of the cup is produced from the fermentation of cornstarch and the resultant poly lactic acid is used to make a bioplastic polymer. As it is made from an entirely organic material, PLA is a biodegradable and compostable bioplastic polymer.  The paper used to produce BioCups is sourced from sustainably managed plantations so you can be sure old growth forests aren’t being cut down for your morning cuppa.

I hope you are starting to see why forward thinking cafes are starting to use these products to reduce their impact.

The technology now exists to use annually renewable materials for our single use packaging requirements but unfortunately it’s a bit more complicated than that. Based on current first world consumption levels, the planet has insufficient natural resources to supply the entire population of the planet. So what can we do? Plastic made from oil and natural gas will only get us so far.

What do I think? We need to stop the unnecessary waste produced by our modern lifestyles. We are merely caretakers of this planet and we should ensure its health for future generations.

As individuals we can affect change by trying to develop our awareness. Be aware of how many plastic bags you use when you go to the supermarket and understand the environmental impact every one of these has on the planet. Take a reusable bag next time, give some thought to the plastic cups in the office water cooler and use a glass from the kitchen, buy a reusable coffee mug. Consumerism is here to stay, and I don’t believe people will change their habits overnight but if you do have to use single use packaging make sure it is a sensibly sourced product, dispose of it properly and support the cafes that are making the effort to use better alternatives.

Encouraging your friends and family to use reusable packaging will all go a long way to leaving a cleaner legacy for future generations. After all, the earth will be here as long as the sun shines. It is not our planet that we have to save; it is our species and the animals, insects and bacteria that we share our home with that will suffer if attitudes don’t change. The responsibility lies with us as individuals and your efforts and awareness will influence change.

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