Are plastic cups biodegradable? (3 materials that makeup plastic cups) 

This article will detail the biodegradability of plastic cups. Other explored topics will be: 

  • What are plastic cups?
  • What are the properties of plastic cups?
  • What is the impact of plastic cups?
  • Are all plastic cups bad for the environment?
  • Are plastic cups biodegradable?
  • Are plastic cups recyclable?
  • FAQs

Are plastic cups biodegradable?

Plastic cups are not biodegradable because they are made from derivatives of fossil fuels (plastics). Plastic cups may be made from polyethylene and polypropylene. 

These plastic cups may remain in the environment or landfills as waste for more than 400 years and may cause environmental anomalies. However, it is possible to recycle plastic cups which is one of the best ways to deal with non-biodegradable waste. 

Recent endeavours in sustainability have resulted in bioplastics made from plant-based materials and the DNA of biomass. Plastic cups made from bioplastic or DNA plastic are biodegradable. However, this intervention is quite new and a lot of work needs to be done for the normalisation of biodegradable plastic cups.

What are plastic cups? (3 materials that makeup plastic cups) 

There are some common elements that may be used in the making of disposable cups. These materials include paper, plastic and styrofoam. 

Plastic cups are made from plastic material. Plastics are synthetic polymers made from products derived from fossil fuels. 

The word polymer is derived from Greek origins which means many parts. Polymers are made from repeating monomers that are bonded with chemical bonds. 

Polymers may be natural and synthetic. Natural polymers include DNA, RNA, and proteins. Synthetic polymers are plastics, resins, and synthetic fabrics. 

It is claimed that there are many detrimental impacts of synthetic plastics because of many reasons such as waste accumulation and global warming. 

Plastic cups are made from synthetic plastic polymers that include: 

  • PET
  • Polypropylene 
  • rPET

All these materials are made from fossil-derived products that are non-biodegradable and may remain in the environment for hundreds of years. 

It is estimated that plastic cups may remain in the environment for as long as 500 years and may cause environmental problems such as toxicity, pollution, and global warming. 

However, owing to the increased inclination toward green and sustainability, there are many endeavours done to reduce the environmental impact of plastics on the environment. 

One such endeavour is the creation of plastics from natural sources such as sugarcane, sugarbeets, cornstarch and mushrooms. 

Plastics made from these materials are termed bioplastics and are regarded as comparatively safer for the environment. One significant reason behind this claim is the fact that bioplastics are biodegradable. 

What are the properties of plastic cups?

Plastic cups may have the following properties:

  • Durable 
  • Shock resistant
  • Chemical protection
  • Corrosion resistant
  • Thermal insulative
  • Electrical insulative
  • Economical

These are the common properties of plastic cups and based on these properties, plastic cups are used in great quantities. 

It is claimed that more than 3 million plastic cups are used every day adding to the issue of waste generation and waste accumulation. 

It is claimed that plastic cups are usually safe for humans because they are made in such a way. However, it is needed that consumers be careful that no harmful products or chemicals are used in plastic cups such as BPA which is a known hormone disruptor. 

Plastic cups are ideal for travel. Most plastic cups are intended for a single-time use only. Therefore, you are not required to wash these plastic cups. 

Therefore, there is less water consumption linked with plastic cups. Plastic cups are also better off in terms of personal labour as you do not need to wash them or process them in any way. They are a good-to-go product which fits perfectly with the busy hustles of today’s time. 

However, these applications and possibilities of plastic cups do come at the cost of our environment as there are many known impacts of plastic cups on the environment. These impacts will be detailed in the next section. 

What is the impact of plastic cups?

There are a number of environmental impacts of plastic cups. These include: 

  • Plastic cups may remain in the systems for many hundred years. In some cases, this duration may be more than 450 years
  • Plastic cups may cause ocean pollution impacting water quality and marine life
  • Plastic cups may lead to the leaching of the harmful chemicals into the soil
  • Plastic cups also lead to fervent waste accumulation and buildup which may affect waste management systems
  • Plastic cups may cause air pollution leading to anomalies such as global warming
  • Plastic cups may also cause particle pollution 
  • Plastic cups are associated with wastage of natural resources 

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 

Are all plastic cups bad for the environment?

With the increasing trend toward environmental-friendly activities and sustainability, there are a number of endeavours done to protect the environment from the harmful effects of plastics. 

It is a result of these endeavours that we have bioplastics in the consumer marketplace that are made from plant-based materials rather than materials derived from fossil fuels. 

These bioplastics are biodegradable and are assumed to cause decreased environmental impacts. 

Another version of these bioplastics is termed DNA plastic made from the DNA of Salmon sperm cells. Plastic cups may be made from DNA plastic as well which is not harmful to the environment. 

DNA plastic is made from the DNA of biomass. A common source of plastic DNA is Salmon sperm DNA. 

Plastics made from DNA come along with a number of environmental and social benefits. These are: 

  • DNA plastic takes up very less amount of energy to make
  • DNA plastic does not depend on fossil fuel derivatives
  • DNA plastic can easily be degraded by enzymes
  • DNA plastic can also be recycled with great efficiency 
  • DNA plastic does not add to waste generation and accumulation
  • DNA plastic is made from bio-renewable resources
  • DNA plastic may lead to 97% fewer carbon emissions

These are some of the reasons why it is so important to go for biodegradable and bio-renewable resources of plastics because the current waste generation caused by plastics is already beyond 90 million tons. 

Other than the issue of waste generation, conventional plastic leads to a fervent amount of carbon emissions which can be reduced by opting for natural sources instead of depending on fossil fuel derivatives. 

These bioplastics may be used for a number of applications such as the making of plastic cups et cetera. Since there are natural and biological materials involved, there are no known side effects of bioplastics. 

Are plastic cups biodegradable?

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.

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.

It can be concluded that since plastic cups are made from non-natural sources, they are not biodegradable. 

As per some research, plastic cups may remain in the environment for as long as 500 years thus putting a lot of pressure on waste management systems. 

Are plastic cups recyclable?

Recycling is a process of reusing materials and products by making certain changes to them. 

It is a great way to ensure that there is less waste generation and that the world is saved from the detrimental impacts of non-biodegradable waste. 

Recycling adheres to the 3R approach boosted by scientists and environmentalists. It also prostrates the philosophies of sustainability and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)

Recycling comes along the following key benefits: 

  • Better waste management
  • Better resource management
  • Conservation of natural and non-renewable resources
  • Best alternative to non-biodegradable material
  • Cost-efficient way to deal with waste

Plastic cups can be recycled and hence these benefits can be safeguarded. Therefore, it depends on consumers to make sure that plastic cups are disposed of in recycling bins. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that plastic cups are not biodegradable because they are made from derivatives of fossil fuels (plastics). Plastic cups may be made from polyethylene and polypropylene. 

These plastic cups may remain in the environment or landfills as waste for more than 400 years and may cause environmental anomalies. However, it is possible to recycle plastic cups which is one of the best ways to deal with non-biodegradable waste. 

Recent endeavours in sustainability have resulted in bioplastics made from plant-based materials and the DNA of biomass. Plastic cups made from bioplastic or DNA plastic are biodegradable. However, this intervention is quite new and a lot of work needs to be done for the normalisation of biodegradable plastic cups. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are plastic cups biodegradable?

How many types of plastics are there?

There are 7 types or categories of plastics. The first six categories are of non-biodegradable plastics. DNA plastic and bioplastics fall in the seventh category of plastics.

How much time do plastic cups take to degrade?

Plastic cups may degrade in 450-500 years and it is a non-biodegradable waste. 

References

  • Han, J., Guo, Y., Wang, H., Zhang, K., & Yang, D. (2021). Sustainable Bioplastic Made from Biomass DNA and Ionomers. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 143(46), 19486-19497.
  • Pastore, C. (2021). DNA plastic. Nature Nanotechnology, 16(12), 1302-1302.
  • Tokiwa, Y., Calabia, B. P., Ugwu, C. U., & Aiba, S. (2009). Biodegradability of plastics. International journal of molecular sciences, 10(9), 3722-3742.
  • Hopewell, J., Dvorak, R., & Kosior, E. (2009). Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2115-2126.
  • D’Agostin, A., Santos Souza, A. D., Medeiros, J. F. D., & Giacomini, A. C. V. V. (2020, July). Analysing plastic cups use: a psychological approach. In International Joint conference on Industrial Engineering and Operations Management (pp. 77-88). Springer, Cham.
  • Atiwesh, G., Mikhael, A., Parrish, C. C., Banoub, J., & Le, T. A. T. (2021). Environmental impact of bioplastic use: A review. Heliyon, 7(9), e07918.

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