Why are plastic cups bad for the environment?

  • Date: May 17, 2022

Single-use, disposable plastic cups are a staple for kid’s parties and music festivals alike. However, much like plastic straws, consumers are slowly becoming more aware of their environmental impact.  From the carbon emissions related to their production to the fact that they will spend (literally) hundreds of years in landfill. They can cause havoc and damage the planet immeasurably. Here we take a closer look…

Firstly, what are plastic cups made of?

Plastic cups are, unsurprisingly, made from plastic. However, there are several different types of plastic out there that can be molded into single-use cups. Often plastic cups are made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) resin. They are a great choice; thin, lightweight and perfectly safe to drink from. The iconic red Solo cup, on the other hand, is made from the more sturdy molded polystyrene.

So, why are plastic cups bad for the environment?

Plastic cups are not biodegradable (or compostable)

If an item is biodegradable, it can be broken down by microbes such as bacteria. To do so, an item must have come from nature. For example, materials such as wood, cotton and beeswax will all biodegrade – albeit in different timescales. Plastic cups, and plastic in general, will not biodegrade. Although they are derived from fossil fuels, they are very much deemed a human creation.

The terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are often used interchangeably but they do not mean the same thing. Every item that is biodegradable can not be composted – but to be compostable, an item must be biodegradable! This rules plastic cups out the composting pile, unfortunately.

Plastic cups will, however, break down – just not in the same way as in biodegradation. Instead, they will break up into smaller and smaller pieces over time. Rather than returning to nature to provide nourishment, microplastics can cause significant problems for the environment. For example, animals can mistake plastics for food and if swallowed these can cause internal blockages or, potentially, even choke them. At soil level, species can be affected resulting in a decline in land fertility. Plastics really can cause havoc, long after you have thrown them in the trash.

Fossil fuels are used to make plastic cups

As well as not being biodegradable, the production of plastic also introduces significant  environmental impacts. Plastics are derived from fossil fuels. As well as being non-renewable (i.e., once they are gone, they are gone!) they also cause extensive environmental damage during their extraction. Soil in the area is degraded, greenhouse gases are emitted and local water is polluted – and this is just the first step in the process! It is important to note that it is the by-products of the fossil fuel industry that are used to make plastics. It makes sense to use these rather than them be wasted. However, it still supports the fossil fuel industry and contributes to the environmental destruction that it causes.

Production of plastic cups is resource intensive

The environmental impact of producing the final product will, of course, vary between manufacturing plant and exact process. However, it will likely need resources such as energy (which may or may not come from clean sources) and water. The use of excess water is extremely damaging to the environment. Water is such an important resource for all living things – keeping as much fresh water in local eco-systems is vital for species to thrive.

Plastic cups are not always recyclable!

When it comes to plastic, recycling is a complicated business! Some plastics are easily recyclable and others not. And to make matters more confusing, recycling facilities (and rules) vary from region to region. PET resin cups are easily recycled – and can, generally, be recycled in most kerbside collections. The red Solo cups, conversely, aren’t suitable for the typical kerbside collection. However, as always, check with your local authorities – recycling is fast-paced industry, technology is constantly changing!

It is important to note that recycling even comes with its own environmental impacts. Although it will reduce the need to extract new resources, energy is required and there are other impacts such as transport related carbon emissions. You should opt for the recyclable varieties if using plastic cups, but we always recommend avoiding single-use item where possible.

But it’s not all bad news – more eco-friendly options are becoming available….

We understand that sometimes single-use items are the only viable option for the job. Thankfully, there are other ‘plastic’ cups available that we can use instead. The market for bioplastics is growing (it is projected to be worth $44 billion by 2022) and they are increasingly being used in the disposable cup world. Bioplastics are derived from biological sources. PLA (polylactic acid) is commonly used for cups and, generally, comes from the sugars found in corn starch, cassava and sugar starch. They have the advantage of not coming from fossil fuels and they are biodegradable, however they bring their own problems too!

The bottom line

Plastic cups – even those that are fully recyclable – are not the most eco-friendly option out there. They contribute to the fossil fuel industry and are likely to persist in landfill (or the sea) for hundreds of years. That’s before we even consider the energy and water requirements associated with producing them. Although we can limit the amount of environmental impact of plastic cups by opting for recyclable ones, the fact that they are single-use make them far from ideal. Our top choice is always a re-usable alternative.