Plastic cups and the environment; what are the sustainable alternatives?
Euronda investigates: greater knowledge for informed choices
There is an increasing demand for an alternative to disposable plastic cups, and this includes the medical and/or dentistry sectors. For some time now, we, as manufacturers, have been assessing raw materials and production techniques.
The option of using paper cups or bio-plastic cups as “ecological” and “biological” alternatives is often discussed, but is this really an option?
In this article we will examine the different alternatives available on the market; analysing their individual environmental impact and demonstrating that, all too often, generalisations and simplifications make us lose sight of the real impact of our choices. In this sense, it is worthwhile considering both view points.
Firstly, when assessing the sustainability or non-sustainability of a product, its life-cycle assessment (LCA) always needs to be taken into account:
- the raw materials used;
- the cost of extracting it;
- the consumption of energy, water and other materials required to process it;
- its path to end of life (e.g. recyclable or not);
- transport costs due to its weight and bulk.
Secondly, when we talk of disposable products in medical environments, we cannot forget that all products coming into contact with organic liquids are required to be treated as special waste.
For further detail regarding this topic, click here for an article dedicated to Disposable products in medical environments.
Using paper as a raw material for disposable cups may seem like a great idea. Indeed, paper cups are often presented and advertised as compostable, recyclable, or even “organic”. However, this is not borne out completely by real facts, because paper cups are never totally devoid of plastics. In fact, paper cups have an internal coating of plastic to prevent their liquid content coming into contact with the paper. This layer represents approximately 5% of their total weight, meaning a greater consumption of energy and CO2 emissions during the production phase. Furthermore, the process of separating paper and plastic is complex and especially costly and for this reason paper cups are often rejected by recycling plants and are directed to landfills.
Another element to consider is the European-wide regulatory standards that significantly restrict the use of recycled paper fibre in products designed to come into contact with food products (packaging, but also plates and glasses). Without taking into account that paper cups are twice as heavy as common plastic cups and therefore impact on the environment when transported.
We define bio-plastic cups as cups made from processing corn, bamboo or sugar cane. In theory, this solution seems the best because it offers an eco-compatible solution, similar to the traditional solution. The production and use of bio-plastics are more advantageous compared to conventional plastics, both from the point of view of energy requirements as well as from the point of view of greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, this solution greatly impacts on the environment due to the use of fertilisers and chemical substances in the cultivation of the necessary renewable raw materials, as well as the use of land and water. Add to this the environmental impact in transporting the biomasses required in its production.
Overall, biodegradable plastic (usually PLA) obtained from corn or sugar cane is 100 % compostable and can be completely disposed of without any residual waste. In reality, for this process to happen particular environmental conditions must be present. Realistically, if we throw a PLA cup into landfill we don’t recover anything: PLA must be disposed of in composting plants. The temperatures reached in domestic composting systems are insufficient to achieve decomposition. Furthermore, neither the consumer nor the recycling plants can readily differentiate between PLA and traditional plastic. This creates a problem, because if PLA enters into the PET recycling process, it can cause material contamination which can significantly reduce the recycling output. Finally, the mass use of these plastics encourages the spread of monoculture crops, dangerous for biodiversity and for the economic sustainability of the land, in addition to impacting directly on the cost of the raw materials used in food products.
Bio-plastics, therefore, can be an alternative material, but currently they seem to be ecologically unsustainable (if you consider that to grow 1 kg of corn to produce 22 to 28 bottles, 250 L of water is required) for disposable products which typically have very short life spans.
All plastics are not the same
The raw material used in the production of plastics is still crude oil. However, the plastic derived from this can contaminate the environment to a small or great extent depending on the amount of energy spent, on the production of CO2, as well as on the recycling potential, in addition to the hazardous nature of the substances released during its life-cycle. After biopolymers, polypropylene (PP) is considered one of the most eco-friendly plastics.
Polypropylene (PP): an eco-friendly plastic
Raw materials such as ethylene and propylene, considered relatively unharmful for the environment, are used to produce polypropylene (PP). Polypropylene, moreover, is completely devoid of chemical additives, for example plasticisers. Producing polypropylene (PP) cups is simple, energy-efficient and has a low impact in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, production residues can be re-processed, thereby minimising waste production.
PP plastic is most suitable for mechanical recycling. Recycling PP cups is very simple, widespread, completely environmentally-friendly, much more so than paper cups. The majority of waste recycling plants recognise polypropylene without any problem, so it can be properly recycled with less energy compared to other plastics. The use of recycled plastics has grown constantly in the last few years and continues to increase. Even if the reuse of plastic in the production of food products is illegal, this does not take away from the fact that if you look at the different recycling systems, PP cups overall deliver the best results.
Because it is physiologically neutral, polypropylene is used in many medical products such as disposable products, spatulas, syringes, cannulae etc.
In this regard, it is worthwhile remembering that medical waste is classified as special waste and disposing of it involves thermal destruction processes in incineration plants. In this sense, polypropylene does not present a problem because it fully decomposes due to carbon dioxide. All Euronda cups are produced in PP to ensure the lowest possible environmental impact, coupled with the best waste disposal solution.
So, what is the best solution from an ecological point of view: paper, bioplastic or plastic (PP)? We have analysed this issue at length from a production view point and we are of the opinion that there is no clear and unambiguous answer to this question. Many things come into play, which tend to be even more complex in our sector; the biomedical sector, where the use of disposable plastic has delivered enormous advantages in terms of health and safety. We propose, therefore, that we continue to find out more to gain a more in-depth knowledge of what we are using and what we are buying, thereby making informed choices.