When I walk into a cafe or lunch place, I feel good about eating there when I see that the plastic cups are biodegradable. Those little green lines on the cup and the signs proclaiming less waste make my environmentalist heart happy.
But these disposable plates, cups, and silverware, might not really be any more ‘green.’ According to Joe Fassler in his article in OnEarth Magazine “The Cafe Near You Might be Using Green Plastic. Is That an Oxymoron?’, these green plastics may not be any better than regular plastic – any may not be green at all.
To summarize: these cups are made from plant-based plastics, making them a little more renewable than using petroleum -based plastics. But when you look at who makes the cups, the roots can be traced back to Cargill, the Big Agricultural giant. So those plants used to make the plastic are probably absorbing chemicals and pesticides left and right.
On the other end of things, the cups aren’t usually recyclable in local plants – the plastic may contaminate the other plastics in the recycling plant and the whole batch would have to be thrown out. They aren’t compost-able, either, at least in your backyard. According to Fassler’s research, the plant based plastics are only compost-able under the right conditions, which probably don’t exist in your compost pile.
Fassler’s article makes you wonder about whether disposable plates and forks made from corn are really ‘green’, and if those items can be green if they still end up in a landfill. What does being green mean when it comes to our fast paced life?
I would suggest that for an item to truly be ‘green’, it cannot be based on the principle of disposable. Altering the product but keeping the mentality does not make something any more eco-friendly. Fassler mentions that he sees so many of these biodegradable cups in the trash cans (partly because they can’t be recycled and partly because they are disposable). The resulting action here is still the same – the cups go into a landfill somewhere. Throwing a ‘biodegradable’ cup into the trash won’t make you think twice about how many Starbucks cups you throw out a year, and it won’t change your habit of not bringing a reusable cup. It simply makes you feel a little bit better about throwing out that cup.
I’ve talked before about holding impossible standards, and how arm-tying they can be. But this one has no wiggle room. Either we hold ‘green’ to be about changing the mindset of people about the impact they have on the earth, or we green marketing hold sway and convince the world that it’s ok to still live in a disposable world, as long as it’s plant based, or ‘green.’
I confess, that I never really thought about it until reading this article. But it angers me that this kind of thing can happen, that this kind of product can be produced, and that some company can make me feel complacent and less vigilant about what I throw out. It’s not ok. We have to demand better.