Welcome to a new series here on the Cuppow blog: Material World.
We aim to create a conversation about the materials that make up our day-to-day. We’ll showcase a behind the curtain look at our own process as well as solutions for how we can all leave a lighter footprint on our planet by making educated choices about the materials we choose to use.
Who is excited for summer? We Are! Eating outside, staying out late, and of course… drinking so much iced coffee. Fun Fact: The average millennial will drink about 6 trillion iced coffees between May and September.
But there’s something we need to talk about. Those “compostable” cups that every cool coffee shop will give you… Yeah those, they’re doing more harm than good. Their claim of compostability comes with a lot of caveats.
We chatted with professional waste-wrangler Andy Brooks of Boston’s Bootstrap Compost to discuss the rapid rise in bio-plastic usage.
“It’s sort of like putting the cart before the horse. There’s simply not an effective infrastructure to handle the volume of material being created” said Andy.
PLA cups, cutlery, and anything that’s hyped up as a “compostable” alternative to standard single-use disposables will not compost the way unprocessed organic matter does. The only way it will live up to its compostable claim is if it makes it to an industrial composting set-up.
“If you try to break down one of these cups in your backyard or even if you take the cup to a small community farm, the compost pile is not generating enough heat to properly break down that cup. Without heat, it’s simply not going to degrade thoroughly.”
Industrial set-ups are a much bigger deal than just making space a third bucket in your kitchen. Industrial compost piles capable of breaking down bio-plastics need to get up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit at their core and still require 3-6 months to break down a cup completely.
Additionally, even if the cup does break down in an industrial compost pile, the cup isn’t gone. It still has an effect on the farm and the entire ecosystem that, although invisible to the eye, makes a big difference.
“A lot of farmers don’t want it. Aesthetically, it’s something they just don’t want on site. And it can have an effect on their organic certification. One farmer we work with had someone out there who was checking out their set-up in hopes of becoming a USDA Certified Organic farm and they were like: ‘You can’t compost corn-starch based plastic here because it’s going into your soil and the corn in the cup isn’t organic so that’s not going to fly’ “.
When we think and talk about how we use materials like compostable plastic in our daily routine we need to be better at looking below the surface. Black or white statements, simplified solutions, catchphrase imperatives - these are all very dangerous. They answer may never be as easy as we hoped - but taking time to understand how natural cycles work is the only way we’re going to get to effective solutions.
We hope you look forward to digging deeper with us and we welcome your questions and feedback!
Coming soon: Post-Industrial vs. Post-Consumer Recycled Materials