As consumers, we are paying more and more attention to sustainability and pondering how environmentally friendly our choices are. There’s a lot of unclarity about the environmental impact of disposable products like paper coffee cups. What does it actually mean for a product to be renewable, recyclable, compostable or biodegradable? Here we will use paper cups as an example to clarify the sustainability glossary. Understanding the terminology is crucial when figuring out the eco-friendliest way to dispose of a paper cup.
Renewable paper cups
Renewable means that the product is made from a natural resource that replenishes itself naturally over time. To give a very simple example, trees are renewable, oil is not. For example, Huhtamaki Future Smart paper cups are made of 100% renewable plant-based materials and contain no carbon content older than 100 years.
The sustainability of renewable tree fiber is granted with certificates like PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). They make sure that forestry is sustainable and that for each tree cut more trees are planted.
The term ‘renewable’ is linked to the origin of the raw material and and does not refer to how the product is used or what the end of life options are. Products made of renewable material can be either recyclable or compostable.
Recyclable, compostable and biodegradable paper cups – what’s the difference?
Recyclable means products, which, after sorting and collecting can be reprocessed. The resulting material can be manufactured into new products. Paper cups are made of fiber that comes from trees. The fiber used for the cups can be recycled and reused up to seven times before it loses its strength. Magazine paper or corrugated board are examples of products made from recycled fiber.
The recycling infrastructure varies between countries and regions, and thus there is no universal guidance on where to dispose of e.g. recyclable paper cups. For example, in the United Kingdom the recyclable paper cups should be put into a specific cup collection, and in Finland they belong to the paperboard waste stream.
How paper cup recycling works:
Compostable means products, which will decompose and become soil in a set time frame under certain pre-defined conditions. These conditions are different in industrial composting and home composting and thus a product that is suitable for industrial composting might not be good for home composting.
As said, composting requires specific conditions – certain time, temperature and pressure. Therefore, even the compostable cups or other products should not be thrown to nature - it takes a very long time for them to decompose if the conditions are not right.
Huhtamaki’s Bioware® range, including paper cups, is industrially compostable and should be disposed of in bio waste stream depending on a country or region’s infrastructure.
Biodegradable is a more general definition and means products which decompose naturally into small pieces. However, it is possible that they don’t decompose fully or don’t become good quality soil. Different raw materials can be referred to as biodegradable and using the term loosely may encourage littering the environment.
We as consumers must understand that correct disposal is the key for materials to be reused for new products or to be composted. The best way to dispose of used paper cups is to sort them into the correct waste stream. All Huhtamaki’s paper cups are recyclable or compostable and the paperboard used is made from renewable material.