There’s a lot of confusion and misleading information online about these two items at the moment, we’ve seen many retailers incorrectly describing these items. As a result we thought we’d write a quick post to clear up the differences and set the record straight a bit.
Biodegradable and compostable cups have seen a meteoric rise in popularity since 2018 with the unprecedented shift towards sustainable disposables and biodegradability. The market has responded to the increased demand with a range of new biodegradable items to replace many ranges of traditional disposable products. The problem is that because the items are so new to the market, and still in their infancy in some cases, a lot of the information you’ll find online is either out of date or incorrect.
When the demand for biodegradable items first spiked, the immediate problem was providing a replacement for plastic cups. These are widely used in a huge range of situations and by lots of different consumers. They’re used in the home, commercially at bars, festivals, as a safe replacement for glassware, medically in the NHS etc.
The first attempt at providing a biodegradable alternative was to offer a traditional plastic polymer with an additive which allowed the physical structure of the raw material to break down into pieces, seemingly resulting in the product disappearing as if by magic. Unfortunately, there proved to be a fairly big catch to this type of material. It did indeed break down, but the oil based structure doesn’t disappear as such, it goes through a miniaturization process and breaks down into tiny pieces. These pieces are now commonly referred to as “microplastics”.
This should set off alarm bells fairly quickly due to the amount of negative press coverage of recent times. By breaking down the plastic compound into tiny microscopic pieces it allows the oil based plastics to enter our food stream and our water supply. This will happy as they’re absorbed into fertile earth or washed away through streams into reservoirs. Once they end up in the ocean they’ll be consumed by fish and other creatures, again ending up in our food supply.
More recently, things like plastic pint glasses and water cups have been produced using an alternate bio-plastic based material called PLA. This is a cornstarch based material and can be safely composted without the inherent issues of an oxo-biodegradable plastic product.
If you’re looking to replace plastic glasses with a biodegradable alternative, you should be looking at a compostable cup and checking it’s not described as “oxo-biodegradable” and that it doesn’t mention plastic compounds such as polypropylene or polystyrene. These are products that will end up as microplastics and are widely rumored to be banned in the UK at some point in the near future.
Unfortunately there is a price disparity between oxo-biodegradable and PLA compostable cups, the oxo-biodegradable cups are considerably cheaper due to plastic raw material being much more affordable than cornstarch based PLA. The simple fact of the matter is though that these old oxo-biodegradable items are simply not suitable for customers looking to replace their disposables with eco-friendly compostable / biodegradable plastic cups. Many more ethical suppliers will actually display a warning that accurately describes what they’re selling, but likewise many will simply use the price benefit of an oxo-biodegradable plastic cup as a sales advantage.
Moreover, to be absolutely sure you are purchasing a sustainable bio based product seek out items also marked “Compostable” rather than just “Biodegradable”. The desk I type this from is biodegradable, but it won’t break down in compost as it’s not compostable (to use the compostable term means the item will completely break down inside 12 weeks).
You can find a full range of our (cornstarch based PLA!) biodegradable plastic cups at the following location: https://www.eventsupplies.co.uk/biodegradable/cups/plastic-cups