News - February 24, 2011

Will the real sustainable cup please stand up?

Drinking coffee out of the familiar white plastic cups could become a thing of the past. Very soon, bio-carton will be tried out in the Administration Building, by Facilities & Services, and in the Radix. This trial is part of a Wageningen study into environmental pressures from disposable cups.

In fact, it's a question of 'Which one of the three?' Besides the cups made of plastic and bio-carton (carton with a coating of poly lactic acid or PLA on the inside), the bioplastic cup (full PLA) is also involved in the test. Bioplastic cups are now used by Albron in the Forum, but only for cold drinks. The cups cannot cope with heat, and will collapse like pudding. However, it's just a matter of time before a cup which can stand heat is produced, as the industry is working hard on it.
Ecological footprint
Research into the environmental pressures from disposable cups is a Wageningen UR project, involving also Albron, Douwe Egberts, the Gelderland provincial government and Huhtamaki, the Finnish producer of the present cups. The provincial government is even subsidizing this to the tune of a hundred thousand euros. With this money, an environmental analysis of the three cups will be made. This will be like an ecological footprint of the coffee cup.
A lot of research has already been done into the environmental impact of disposable cups. But the results are not conclusive, says project leader José Potting of the Environmental Systems Analysis Group. 'We are going to examine the data again properly, particularly that concerning the situation in Wageningen. Moreover, the costs for different scenarios for the collection and processing of the cups will be studied.' Besides comparing the environmental impacts of these cups, the team will also consider the widely use porcelain mugs used by individuals. Potting is looking for a MSc student to find out how the mug scores in terms of environmental impact in comparison to the disposable cups.
2.5 million plastic disposable cups
Wageningen UR uses about 2.5 million plastic disposable cups a year, thus generating 15 tons of polystyrene waste. Looking into the latter could lead to environmental gains. Bio-carton and bioplastic are biodegradable in principle, and need not be incinerated. But what is the best way to decompose the cups? That part of the project takes place in Wageningen UR's composting facilities in Nergena experimental farm. The experiments will begin soon under the supervision of the Biological Farming Systems Group. Besides composting, a separate part of the project will study the processing of bio-carton cups like used paper. Potting is also looking for a MSc student to carry out this work.
Besides environment and cost aspects, the success of bio-cups will be determined by the behaviour of the user. Do students and employees want to make that extra effort to dispose of bio-cups separately from other wastes? Students Lisa Ploum and Karen Vermeulen asked 156 coffee drinkers to fill up a detailed questionnaire. 'People are willing to walk a little further than usual to take the cups to a separate collection point', Ploum reveals. But any distance more than 30 to 40 metres would be intolerable. 'Handing in an empty cup, i.e. without other wastes in it, is also doable. But having to rinse it is too much to ask for.' Another interesting find: coffee in bio-cups may cost more, but not when the extra cost is above 10 cents. However, what people think they would do may not be what they will actually do with bio-cups. The latter remains to be seen. Potting is searching for yet another student to find out how this works in real situations.