This article was originally published in the Teton Valley News on July 3, 2014. It is reposted with permission.
Summer is finally here! From Music on Main to backyard barbeques, summer brings great food, music, and fun in the sun. Summer festivals and events also create a surge in the use of disposable cups, plates, and cutlery. Many venues have switched to compostable cups recently. Are compostable cups really better?
If your goal is to send less waste to the landfill, then compostable cups might have an advantage over traditional disposables. For compostable cups to biodegrade, however, they need to be processed at industrial composting facilities. Without an industrial composting facility nearby, compostable cups at many venues end up in a landfill, where conditions prevent decomposition. If a compostable cup does break down in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide! Unless they are composted, biodegradable plastics face the same destiny as other plastics – hundreds of years in a landfill.
Some compostable cups may be more sustainable than plastic cups from a production standpoint. Bioplastic is made from crops such as corn. They take less energy to make, and are made from renewable resources. Regular plastics, on the other hand, are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.
Unfortunately, not all biodegradable plastics are bioplastics. Some biodegradable plastics are the same petroleum-based plastics you see in other plastic products. The only difference is that the biodegradable ones don’t have the additives used in most plastics to prevent them from breaking down in sunlight. While these products may decompose in the right environment, they are not made from renewable resources and take just as much energy to create. Paper plates and cups, on the other hand, are made from a renewable resource and can be composted.
What’s a music lover to do? At Music on Main, you can rest assured that the compostable cups are being composted. Recycling provider RAD Recycling stockpiles all compostable cups and transports them to West Yellowstone at the end of the season to be composted. For this system to work, the cups need to be separated from the trash. Please dispose of compostable cups in the proper bin.
A better option is to avoid disposables altogether. This summer the Teton Valley Foundation is selling reusable cups at Music on Main. The $10 cup includes one free drink. Many other events, including Targhee Fest, sell their own version of collectable, reusable cups. In the RRR version of “rock, paper, scissors”, reducing and reusing beat composting.
Compostable cups are a neat idea, but don’t let cool technology lead you away from more sustainable habits. Buy a reusable cup, and bring your own camp plate and utensils. If you need disposables, choose paper products over plastic or Styrofoam. Make sure all compostable cups are disposed of in the composting bins, not the trash. Last but not least, sit back and enjoy the show!
Tanya Anderson is the executive director of Teton Valley Community Recycling. For more information, visit tetonrecycling.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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It is easy to get carried away with the idea that compostable cups are better than fossil fuel plastic cups. Just as you say though, much better a re-usable cup which gets used hundreds of time before it get smashed, or for some other reason, thrown away.