Are paper cups biodegradable? (9 properties of paper cups) 

This article will detail the biodegradability aspect of paper cups. Other covered topics would be: 

  • What are paper cups made of?
  • What is the impact of a paper cup?
  • What is the impact of plastic lining used in paper cups?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • Are paper cups biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Are paper cups biodegradable?

The paper part of paper cups is biodegradable and may degrade in 1-2 months. However, the plastic lining is not biodegradable and may not degrade for as long as 20 years. 

Paper cups are made of two main ingredients: paper and plastic. Paper is obtained from trees and the source of plastic is polyethylene. 

There are three types of materials used to make cups that include styrofoam, plastic and paper. Paper cups offer properties such as lightweight, economic, leakproof, and low thermal conductivity. 

There are environmental impacts of both paper and plastic. That is because paper means cutting of trees which impacts the environment in a very negative way leading to effects including global warming, air pollution, and soil erosion. 

The impact of plastic lining in paper cups causes even greater damage to the environment which is mainly because plastic is non-biodegradable. It is argued that plastic may take up to a thousand years. 

What are paper cups made of? (9 properties)

The section will cover the composition of paper cups because an understanding of what paper cups are made of will be elemental in determining the environmental impact of paper cups. 

As the name suggests, paper cups are made from paper. Paper is a pulpy material that has high amounts of cellulose content and is obtained from trees. 

However, there may also be other elements that makeup paper cups. It is stated that most paper cups are also made with a thin layer of plastic that is called polyethylene. 

The main purpose of the thin layer of plastic is to boost the utilitarian aspect of paper cups making them leakproof and resistant to environmental pressure and rigour. 

While the impacts of paper on the environment are not regarded as harsh on the environment, there are many known impacts of plastics on the environment and human health. 

The following are the common properties of paper cups:

  • Economical 
  • Light weight 
  • Leakage free
  • Non-toxic
  • Safe for food and drinks 
  • Easy to carry 
  • Disposable
  • Low thermal conductivity 
  • Decreased thermal effusivity 

These are some of the common properties found in paper cups that make them a good fit and also an economical one. Since paper cups are chiefly made from paper, it is argued that there are no health risks associated as it may in the case of plastic cups. 

Usually, paper cups are made from one of the following materials that include: 

  • Paper 
  • Styrofoam 
  • Plastics 

It is argued that the most significant impact caused by plastic cups is mainly because plastic cups are not biodegradable and will lead to environmental problems such as waste accumulation and global warming. A detailed account will be provided in the next sections. 

What is the impact of paper cups on the environment?

 It is usually perceived that products and materials made from natural sources will have no impact on the environment. However, this statement is quite distant from the actual reality. 

The primary reason is that every consumer product will have some impact on the environment. Consumer products are made from raw materials at the expense of energy and leaving behind waste. All these factors impact our environment. 

Paper cups are made from trees and this means that there will be cutting of trees. It is already suggested that human activities have resulted in a 50% decreased tree count. 

Trees are essential entities that save us from environmental anomalies and play their part in the sustainability and maintaining the greenness of the environment.

If there will be excessive tree cutting, there will be negative impacts on the environment including soil erosion, destruction of habitats, and disruption of ecosystems. Trees are the primary producers. They are the starting points of food webs and food chains. 

If trees are cut in grave amounts, there will be effects reciprocated at various levels of food chains. The effects of cutting of trees on the environment may be summarised in the following points: 

  • Increased pollution 
  • Damage to crops
  • Water logging
  • Soil erosion
  • Air pollution
  • Increased carbon dioxide contents
  • Global warming
  • Flooding
  • Climate change 

The production of paper cups also are energy and water consumptive. This leads to the emissions of GHGs which may cause global warming and other environment-related anomalies. 

Therefore, it is incumbent that paper cup manufacture is made in line with concepts of sustainability by cutting trees from controlled environments and making use of renewable resources rather than non-renewable resources. 

What are the impacts of the plastic lining (of paper cups) on the environment?

It has been detailed that although paper cups are made from paper which is obtained from trees. However, most paper cups also make use of a thin layer of plastic to make paper cups free from leakage and increase the utilitarian aspect of paper cups. 

However, the plastic that is used in the making of paper cups is known to have many detrimental impacts on the environment. Polyethylene is the plastic that is used in paper cups. 

This is mainly because plastics are made from products that are derived from fossil fuels. When fossil fuels are used, it results in the increased emission of greenhouse gases. 

Greenhouse gases are gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane et cetera. These gases entrap the sun’s energy and lead to a phenomenon known as global warming. 

Global warming leads to other environmental issues such as increased global temperatures, effects on life, deforestation, melting of glaciers, increased melting of glaciers, increased flooding, and unprecedented weather conditions. 

The impacts of plastics are not only limited to the environment but are also manifested on humans. Common complications that arise as a result of plastic use and exposure include: 

  • Organ damage 
  • Damage to skin 
  • Cancer 
  • Eye diseases
  • Hormonal disruption 
  • Neuro Complications 
  • Developmental issues
  • Damage to the foetus 
  • Heart & lung diseases 

What is biodegradation?

Biodegradability is the breakdown of waste by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, decomposers, algae, and even protozoa. These microbes ensure that the waste generated does not accumulate and gets back to the system of life. 

If there is waste accumulation, there will be negative effects that waste accumulation which will impact all areas of our life. 

Therefore, biodegradability can also be regarded as nature’s dustbin. What is the role of a dustbin? To keep the waste segregated from the environment and make sure it does not pollute the environment. 

The role of biodegradability is very similar. Other than microbes, there are also external factors which play an important role in the biodegradation process. These may include aeration, sunlight, temperature and pressure. 

The time taken for a product or substance to biodegrade depends on the type of material and the external conditions. 

Based on biodegradability, there is a classification of waste. Waste may either be biodegradable or non-biodegradable. 

Not all waste can be degraded by the action of microbes. Most of the waste that is from synthetic materials produced at the expense of chemicals and human innovation is not biodegradable. 

It may take hundreds of years for such waste to degrade and therefore, it is termed non-biodegradable waste. Examples of non-biodegradable waste may include:

  • Resins 
  • HDPE
  • Nylon
  • Acrylonitrile 
  • Epoxies

These materials may take from a few hundred years to a thousand years to degrade. While they persist, they cause a plethora of problems to the environment and life. Examples of biodegradable waste may include plant waste, animal waste, manure et cetera. 

Examples of biodegradable waste include: 

  • Plant waste 
  • Animal waste 
  • Manure sewage
  • Natural fabrics like cotton, wool or silk 
  • Natural polymers 
  • Synthetic materials made from natural sources like bioplastics 

The impact of biodegradable waste on the environment is very less compared to non-biodegradable waste.

Are paper cups biodegradable?

Based on the current literature, a stance can be built on the biodegradability of paper cups. It has been seen that for a product to be biodegradable, it must be made from natural materials. 

Paper cups are mostly made from natural material which is plant-based paper. However, there is also a thin layer of plastic used which is non-natural. 

Therefore, it can be concluded that paper cups are biodegradable. However, the thin layer of plastic will not be degraded. 

The paper part of the paper cups may degrade in about 1.5 months. However, owing to the other constituents, it is argued that paper cups may not degrade completely because of the plastic layer. 

As per research, it is claimed that it may take more than 20 years for paper cups to biodegrade because of the plastic content used. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that paper cups are made of two main ingredients: paper and plastic. Paper is obtained from trees and the source of plastic is polyethylene. 

There are environmental impacts of both paper and plastic. That is because paper means cutting of trees which impacts the environment in a very negative way leading to effects including global warming, air pollution, and soil erosion. 

The impact of plastic lining in paper cups causes even greater damage to the environment which is mainly because plastic is non-biodegradable. It is argued that plastic may take up to a thousand years. 

There are three types of materials used to make cups that include styrofoam, plastic and paper. Paper cups offer properties such as lightweight, economic, leak proof, and low thermal conductivity. 

The paper part of paper cups is biodegradable and may degrade in 1-2 months. However, the plastic lining is not biodegradable and may not degrade for as long as 20 years. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are paper cups biodegradable?

Can paper cups be recycled?

Yes, it is possible to recycle paper cups. It is important that paper cups are thrown in recycling bins so that they may be reused leading to better energy and resource consumption. 

What materials are used to make cups?

Cups may be made from plastics, styrofoam, and paper. Most of the coffee cups are made from paper cups. It is argued that there are more than 2.7 million cups used every day. 

References 

  • Yuhui, M. (2018). Problems and resolutions in dealing with waste disposable paper cups. Science progress, 101(1), 1-7.
  • Ranjan, V. P., Joseph, A., & Goel, S. (2021). Microplastics and other harmful substances released from disposable paper cups into hot water. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 404, 124118.
  • Chandrasekaran, S., Nagendran, N. A., Krishnankutty, N., Pandiaraja, D., Saravanan, S., Kamaladhasan, N., & Kamalakannan, B. (2011). Disposed paper cups and declining bees. Current Science, 101(10), 1262.
  • Jia, P., Ji, X., Zheng, B., Wang, C., Hao, W., Han, W., … & Zhang, J. (2022). Eco-friendly and complete recycling of waste bamboo-based disposable paper cups for value-added transparent cellulose-based films and paper plastic composites. Polymers, 14(8), 1589.
  • Triantafillopoulos, N., & Koukoulas, A. A. (2020). The future of single-use paper coffee cups: Current progress and outlook. BioResources, 15(3), 7260-7287.

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