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The ”What If” of Disposable Paper/Plastic Cups

Sometimes I think we get over-exercised about the use of plastics. Now, before you come down on me with an eco-sledgehammer, I do know plastics have a bad reputation because they virtually never decompose. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has a table, “Approximate Time It Takes Garbage to Decompose in the Environment,” that says plastic never fully biodegrades, but  breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming something known as “microplastic.” Even pieces less than 5mm can still cause problems for marine life. But stuff made of plastic has become an intrinsic part of our lives.

So, “what if” we could make plastic out of something else? Something that would be biodegradable in a matter of weeks? You see, it’s not the end product that’s the problem, like straws, cups, bottle, etc. The problem is what the plastic is made of.

A British company, Skipping Rocks Lab, introduced a water bottle in 2013 made from brown seaweed. Called Ooho, you can actually eat the bottle after you finish the water. (I wonder what you wash the bottle down with?) Now Skipping Rocks wants to begin making disposable paper cups from that same brown seaweed. The co-founder, Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, said, “You use a coffee cup for half an hour maximum and then it’s going to be in the environment for probably 700 years. That’s a big mismatch in terms of use and shelf life.”

Gonzalez also pointed out that “To date, paper cups are often lined or coated with plastic such as polyethylene (PE) or oil-based waxes to prevent the liquid from leaking out or soaking through the paper. This makes them difficult to recycle.”

Cups that claim to be 100% biodegradable or compostable are usually made from polylactic acid (PLA), a polyester derived from renewable resources such as starches, which still takes a long time to break down. “PLA is compostable but only in industrial compostable sites, so you need to identify that cup and bring it to a special facility that is going to apply specific pressure, heat and ionic liquids in order for it to start to decompose,” said González. “If not, nothing is going to happen.”

The idea is to use seaweed as a bio-based, biodegradable and recyclable container in disposable food packaging, which is also waterproof and thermal-resistant. Seaweed packaging can decompose in soil in about four to six weeks. As seaweed is cheap, easy to harvest and extract, and is available on every coastline, it could replace the plastic liner inside most takeaway cups and provide the same properties as current oil-based ones at competitive prices.

Worth Checking Out

By the way, The NH table says it takes one million years for a glass bottle to decompose!