Compostable disposable cups. Helping or making it worse?

Naturally “compostable” materials have enjoyed a rather smug status for some time.  We all know that single use disposables are bad news for the environment, both practically and, increasingly, ethically too.  But name something “compostable” and our halo shines a little brighter, and we feel more comfortable with the idea of throwing away that coffee cup after use.

But how far are we really digging into the issue?  Do we really know if the environmental data stacks up?  I’m worried we’re getting it all wrong and that moving in the direction of using compostable single use products versus reusing what we already have is simply no better – in fact, I’m concerned it’s potentially making the problem worse.

If we want to make progress in changing attitudes at a deep subconscious level, we should be feeling uncomfortable about any single use disposable item, compostable or not.

At Oxygen House, we pride ourselves on being leaders in environmental sustainability and in educating our people.  We provide organic food, EV charging points, reduce our energy usage with solar panels and air source heat pumps and encourage all our staff to think constantly about environmental welfare.  But even here, I fear we are being drawn into the fallacy of using compostable containers over the long-held wisdom of hard wearing, reusable ceramics.

So I’ve done some research. One way to judge is to compare the energy usage (equivalent CO2) from production, transportation and disposal. I’ve focused on comparing ceramic vs disposable, compostable paper cups or bowls.

It’s not an easy comparison – if it was, I suspect our subconscious attitudes would be a lot clearer. Steffen Andersen has done some research and concludes that  a ceramic cup needs to be used 38 times to be as efficient as a paper cup. Our head of catering at Oxygen House estimates that we get an average of 500 uses before a breakage.

So, if we only focus on energy then, it’s a no-brainer.  We should be feeling very uncomfortable about using any single use item – even if they are compostable.

However, this is only part of the equation.  Waste and pollution from ceramics is negligible.  They’re made from clay extracted directly from the ground and when they break can be recycled directly into building material.

The waste and pollution associated with disposables, however, is a different story – even if we only focus on compostable products.  The problem arises when you consider that most food or drink containers need to have a thin water-resistant lining to avoid collapse in warmth and moisture.  Theoretically this is still compostable but often the nature of the materials means the breaking down process can take tens, or even hundreds of years.  What’s more, the resulting compost has dubious benefit to the soil so although eventually, compostables break down, they don’t add to the natural ecosystem, and in the process create wastelands of landfill which simply become another source of pollution.

So I’m thinking we should strive for an environment where we proudly wield our own mugs, and where using an office mug (let alone a disposable) should become rather embarrassing as it suggests you’re not rinsing and reusing after all.

Over time, mug numbers at Oxygen House dwindle through wear and tear and although we top up supplies now and again, I think perhaps even company ceramics aren’t the whole answer.  We need your help – bring your own mug to work and bear it with pride!  Consider reusing your own mug without dishwashing, and always ask whether you need a disposable container.

After all, the impact of such a change on subconscious thinking can be dramatic – and possibly more powerful than the energy and pollution directly saved.  Making a conscious decision to do things differently may drive you to think about other things differently too, challenging a whole range of personal habits in terms of acting and thinking.  It might even become a deciding factor in your choice of candidate to vote for – and that can certainly drive huge change for the future.