The Great Cup Debate

From F period

Sam Colt e-mailed the author of the Smithsonian article on PLA to ask her a few questions.

Some Environmental ideas from B period

Cost data from E period

PLA Cups= Polylactic Acid Cups

This blog briefly talks about the pros and cons of Bioplastics.

A few things to consider are:

1) Bioplastic manufacturers predict that in the future they won't be using edible plants to produce their products
2) If not composted correctly, bioplastic products release much more harmful gasses in landfills. This could be a potential problem is bioplastics become popular in communities that cannot afford to compost.
3) Some bioplastics cannot be recycled

Below is the full blog post:

The Pros and Cons of Bioplastics

As the impetus to replace conventional, petroleum-based plastic with an environmentally-kinder alternative made from plants gains more momentum worldwide, the media has been quick to point out the potential for environmental problems and consumer confusion. One of the most emotive arguments against these plant-based alternatives is that with the bioplastics market growing by 20-30% a year, the industry is contributing to the global food crisis by taking over large areas of land previously used to grow crops for food.

However, one of the leading manufacturers of bioplastic, Natureworks, uses dextrose derived from corn known as "Number 2 Yellow Dent". More than 80% of this crop is used for animal feed and is the most common corn variety in the United States. It is sometimes used to produce dextrose and fructose to sweeten food products but it is not the same corn that is used for human consumption. Also, recent technologically developments in the bioplastic industry have shown that, in the long-term, there will be a move away from using edible plants in the manufacture of biodegradable packaging materials.

Secondly, it has also been argued that alternatives to conventional plastic can, potentially, increase emissions of greenhouse gases if they end up in ordinary landfill sites and not in industrial compost sites. At the moment, most
biodegradable plastic ends up in landfill sites and degrade without oxygen, releasing methane which is a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Another criticism of bioplastic is that these products cannot be recycled and that if they contaminate the waste stream, this will make other recycled, conventional plastics unusable.

However, this problem can easily be addressed if governments make the appropriate changes to waste management in their respective countries. The rate at which the bioplastic industry is growing means that we now need to look at strategies for commercial-scale composting and, ultimately, it is up to our respective governments to meet the new challenges that this will bring.

Sam Colt > This website shows the pros and cons of PLA, while explaining its energy use in the break down process

Corn as a commodity
The United States of America is the world's largest exporter of corn, producing 42% of the world's corn supply. The sale of corn represents over $11 billion dollars in revenue for the U.S. By switching to corn based cups the demand and price of corn will increase. However production of corn must increase so the U.S can continue to lead the world in corn production and revenue. If production of corn and U.S exports stay level, then switching to corn based cups is a viable option. A way that the U.S could make corn available for corn based cup production would be the reduction of ethanol production which takes up 12% of U.S corn production O and Park

  • Manufactured from corn starch, a renewable resource.
  • Biodegradable, breaks down into mostly carbon dioxide and water.
  • Compostable, 6-12 months in a home composter (Many people are reporting that they will not compost in a home composter), 1-6 months in a commercial composter. Longer for heat resistant utensils. Once composted it is indistinguishable from the other compost.
  • Does not emit toxic fumes if incinerated.
  • Does not leech chemicals into food or soil.
  • Freezer safe.
  • Can handle hot items up to 120F (200F for utensils).
  • Looks, feels, handles just like plastic.
  • Is inexpensive.
  • Is not recyclable, must be kept separate from plastic. [NatureWork is working with recycling companies to develop better ways of sorting PLA so that it can be recycled]
  • Few commercial composting facilities (113 in U.S.), only 1/4 of which accept residential materials.
  • Commercial Composters use Microbes to break down organic material. Large amounts of PLA in a composter would cause problems because it breaks down into lactic acid which is wetter and more acidic. They can break this down but it requires more oxygen for the microbes to consume. Commercial Facilities would have trouble providing enough oxygen for large amounts of PLA to breakdown. Anaerobic digesters would not have the same problem.
  • It is estimated that in a landfill PLA will take anywhere from 100 to a 1000 years to biodegrade.
  • Typically made from genetically modified corn and usually not organic. [Can be made from non genetically modified corn]
  • Diverting corn away from the world’s food supply.[According to NatureWorks this is a spurious complaint]

-Sophie!!!! and alex....

The evolving truth about corn plastic
• Composting: Works at commercial-grade composting plants but fails to break down in a backyard compost pile. Northwest composting plants seek bioplastics from food-service operations, not residents.
• Recycling: Oregon recyclers don't want it because it might taint loads of petroleum-based plastic. Still, the manufacturer recommends recycling and calls contamination fears overblown.
• Incineration: Produces no toxic compounds when burned, unlike many plastics. Oregon has one municipal waste-to-energy incinerator, in Marion County.
• Garbage: Like conventional plastic, it's not likely to break down in a landfill. If it does, it could save space but produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Litter: Also like conventional plastic, it doesn't break down quickly on land or in the ocean.
--Scott Learn


This article presents the possibility of burning PLA cups getting rid of trash and providing energy. These cups do not emit any toxins when burnt and could possibly provide a green answer for energy production. However unless PLA plastics become a major player in the plastic market it will only contaminate already existing recycling systems and could not provide substantial energy. For PLA plastics to have any positive effect on the environment it would have to monopolize the plastic industry. Charmaine

PLA CUPS: 12 oz cups: Case of 2,000 costs $196
PACE CUPS: 12 oz cups: Case of 2,000 costs $120
Cost Difference: +$76 for PLA Cups

PLA CUPS: 20 oz cups: Case of 2,000 costs $260
PACE CUPS: 20 oz cups: Case of 2,000 costs $180
Cost Difference: +$80 for PLA Cups

These statistics show that there is a price increase of almost 50% for the PLA Cups, however it is well worth the cost, for it provides a healthier, more efficient form of recyclable cups. Pace Academy uses approximately 2,000 cups a week, so you can do the math.

-LEX and JON intense research results

Some Pricing Options:
12 oz. clear cup: Case of 2,000 costs $180 ( cold-cups)- This would cost $60 more than our plastic cups. NEW CHEAPER PRICE: $164 per 2,000 cups (
20 oz. cup: Case of 2,000 costs $232 ( This would cost $52 more than our plastic cups.
*Note: These are both for cold drinks only. Neither one can hold liquids over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, shipping is not included.

It really comes down to this question: How much more are we willing to spend on cups to be environmentally friendly?

-Daniel W. --> this is an interesting article about the recycling process in general and an experiment done by NatureWorks to see if PLA products could be effectively separated from the other products in a recycling facility.

- Mark Schneider

Energy Use

- PLA plastic uses 1.5X as much energy to manufacture as PET plastic.
- Therefore more fossil fuel is used for production of PLA versus PET with more emissions from the power plant.
- The energy to make 1lb of PLA equals burning 118 60-watt light bulbs for 1hr vs. only 78 bulbs for PE.

PLA Bottles consume the most energy as well as leaves the most CO2.

The total energy requirements for each system include the energy for manufacturing and transporting materials at each life cycle phase, as well as the energy content of fuel resources used as raw materials.
- Weights of post consumer wastes are directly related to the weight of a product.
- Therefore, heavier products produce more post consumer solid wastes.
- The PET cup is the heaviest and so produces the most post consumer solid waste.
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- Recycling and composting were not considered in this report.
- Only the 12-ounce PET bottle would have a recycling rate over two percent.
- Although PLA is compostable in commercial composting facilities, only a small portion of the U.S. population has access to these facilities and rarely do these facilities accept plastic items.
- Also, PLA is not suitable for backyard composting, thus no credit was given to composting as an end-of-life management practice.

- Jiayue Yuan

What happens if the corn cup is not properly composted and is thrown away?
Will it biodegrade in a landfill?

  • The corn cup has about the same compostable qualities as other organic waste when put in a landfill.
  • The fact of the matter is, most landfills are enclosed, and this prevents the corn cups from composting like they would if they were put into bins and brought to a composting facility.
  • The inability of the corn cups to compost in landfills gives a major incentive to dispose of these products properly instead of throwing them in the trash.
  • If these products are not disposed of properly, then the idea that they are helping the environment substantially more than plastic cups is thrown out the window.

Relying on Industrial Agriculture
- Harman Lindsey

Alternative to Hot Cups

-Made from Sugarcane
-Sugarcane fiber remaining after extraction of juice from the sugarcane
-Can tolerate heat like paper cups
-Fully biodegradable and compostable- will compost in a commercial composting facility (does not need a special facility like the PLA cups)
-Takes 45-60 days to fully compost
-About $ 0.07 per cup
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Current Recyclable Cups:

12 oz cups = 6 cents per cup
20 oz = 9 cents per cup

We use 2000 of 12 oz cups per week

One week = $120
For just 12 oz cups

One month = $ 480
For just 12 oz cups

School year = $4320
(For 9 months)

Current Lids

Current Straws

Corn-based Cups:

12 oz cups = 11 cents per cup
20 oz cups = 14 cents per cup

We use 2000 of 12 oz cups per week

One week = $211.50
For just 12 oz cups

One month = $ 846
For just 12 oz cups

One school year = $7614
(For 9 months)

Corn-based Lids

One case = 1000 lids

One case = $68.77

Corn-based Straws
One case = 9600 straws, 24 boxes of 400

One case = $161.25

(plus they are green in color)

Which means …


$3294 increase per school year

28% increase in price

$366 increase per month

- Ashley

What happens to a plastic bottle after it’s recycled?
· Compacted and shipped to a processing facility
· Sorted into good plastic and contaminated
o Wrong colors types of plastic and bottle tops
· Plastic that’s accepted shredded and chopped into small flakes and made into pellets for shipment to processing plants
· Pellets and small flakes are melted and molded and washed and sold to the plastic bottle manufacturers to make new bottles and other products
o Fiberfill for sleeping bags
o Plastic lumber
o Flower pots
o Containers for non-food products
o Mats
o Lumber (created from recycled plastics can make bridges)
o Toys
o T shits (after chopped into small flakes melted into fiber/ then spun to create yarn)
o Compost bins and recycling containers
o Countless other things
· Recycling saves energy
o One aluminum can saves enough energy to run a TV for three hours
Negative aspects of recycling
· “The downside of plastic is , for starters, in order to create plastic, petroleum, a natural resource, is being depleted. And what about all the plastic bottles that are not recycled which end up in our waterways hurting aquatic life or in a landfill for centuries? To make matter worse, toxic chemicals leach from the bottles.
· Plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely. After it become unstable to be used in any product, it will end up in a landfill.
· Antimony is released as a gas when PET plastic bottles are incinerated.
· Both Polyester and recycled polyester contain antimony. Recycled Poly is made out of recycled plastic bottles which themselves contain Antimony. (For that matter, all products that are made from recycled soda bottles have Antimony in it.) So, did my couches contain Antimony? Only Eco-intelligent polyester is Antimony free but made from virgin polyester.
· The energy consumption to make recycled polyester is more than conventional cotton, organic cotton and hemp. (But less than virgin polyester.)
· Creating recycled polyester can causes toxic chemicals to leach into our waterways unless the facility treats its wastewater.
o The demand for post consumer bottles has increased so much that companies are sourcing new unused bottles from the bottle manufacturers.”
- Julia Berger-

Exploring reusable cups - Jake

Bring your own water bottle to school and wash it once a day when you get home. Everyone has a backpack they can carry it in and there are water fountains all around the school. Instead of buying bottled water at the snack bar, fill up your water bottle. A lot of teachers already do this, and many kids too. Also, if you want a soda or juice at the snack bar, you could be charged the amount of a small cup but receive a full water bottle of coke. This would be a great incentive to bring your own water bottle. Water bottles can be purchased for as cheap as $1.00, so if you do lose it, it is replaceable
-You write your name on your bottle and it’s always yours.

-Not wasting cups: earth friendly
-You can have hot or cold in it.
-It has a spot that a carabineer can attach it to a backpack
-Bottle water is costly

-The Earth Policy Institute says it takes about 15 million barrels of oil per year to create enough bottles to meet demand.
-Drinking tap water is way more eco-friendly than bottled water


Benefits of using stainless steel water bottles:
-38 billion plastic water bottles are dumped into landfills every year and take almost 1,000 years to decompose. Stainless steel water bottles keep plastic out of the landfills and last forever.
-These water bottles have a mouth that is wide enough for a water fountain and small enough to drink out of comfortably.
-They are strong and durable.
-They have an easy-to-use, screw-on cap that, in many cases, has a ring in the top so you can attach it to keys, your backpack, etc.
-They are inexpensive for a one-time purchase.
-Bonus…they come in lots of different designs
Websites of popular Stainless Steel Water Bottle manufacturers:


-Anna B


  • Over 30 billion petroleum-based plastic water bottles are added to the landfill each year, (60 million every day) and only approximately 22 percent are recycled. Well they shouldn't be landfilled, what makes you think that compostable bottles will be composted, they will likely be landfilled as well because there are not nearly as many compost bins (or programs) across the country. And since they are plant material they will generate methane in the landfill.
  • According to the "Container Recycling Institute" (CRI), 8 out of 10 bottles end up in landfills. Need more bottle bills!
  • More than 17 million barrels of oil are used each year to make plastic for water bottles according to the Pacific Institute. How many barrels of oil need to grow the corn to make the compostable bottle?
  • Bioplasts, Inc. water bottles biodegrade within 30 to 60 days under commercial composting conditions, whereas, conventional petroleum-based plastic, PET, can take centuries. How many compost facilities are there in the country? CA? Bay Area? Do they like composting the PLA? No, it doesn't compost as fast at the food. It slows down their process. This problem has to be solved.
  • 65 % less fossil fuel used in manufacturing of Bioplasts water bottles resulting in 80-90% less greenhouse gas emissions in production than conventional biopolymers such as PET, PS, PP and PE Yes, but what happens when they end up in the landfill? Recycling is about a continuous process.
  • Safe to drink from bioplastic bottles unlike PET, PVC or polycarbonate plastic. What is the proof? Bioplastics water bottles are completely free of Bisphenol A, a dangerous hormone-disrupting chemical that leaches out of regular water bottles. In fact, they can be composted right along with food in the same composter. Which composter? What happens when you put them in an Anaerobic Digester?
  • Composting is not a widespread practice across the US

Paige Dawkins

-Corn plastic only composts in hot, moist settings-commercial composting -Cannot be combined with conventional plastic recycling because even the smallest about of bioplastic will contaminate -It will stop regular plastics from being salvaged and recycled- Bioplastics are designed to be composted, not recycled. The plant-based material will actually contaminate the recycling process if not separated from conventional plastics such as soda bottles and milk jugs
- PLA plastics produce the greenhouse gas methane when they decompose, so composting isn't a perfect disposal method
-Benefit- if incinerated, bioplastics don't emit toxic fumes like their oil-based counterparts
-Depends on the industrial farming of large fields of crops
-These fields should be focusing on growing corn for the rapidly growing

-Paper is less expensive (than Styrofoam or plastic) and is biodegradable. Paper production can cause almost twice as much CO2 emissions and energy consumption as creating plastic or styrofoam products.
-As for comparing disposable cups vs. reusable cups, you would ideally think that reusable cups or mugs would be more environmentally friendly, but it is based on how many times the cup gets used. The materials used in creating them are significantly more than created disposable cups and it also requires using electricity, water, and soap to wash the cup after every use.
Corn Lid Site:

Plastic Lid Site:

1 case = 1000 cups
1 plastic lid case = $39.75
1 corn lid case = $63.85
1 individual plastic lid = ~$0.04
1 individual corn lid = ~$0.06

-Jack Weber

PLA v. PET- gas waste
According to the amounts of CO2, PLA is a better choice than PET.
“The CO2 equivalent amount for the PLA 2005 water bottles is
significantly less than the CO2 equivalent amount for the PET water

PLA is also better as far as use of fossil fuels go:
• The PET water bottle requires the most total energy; however, it total
energy is not significantly different than the PLA 2005 total energy.
• If combustion energy credit is given, the net energy conclusions do not
differ from the total energy conclusions regarding the PLA water bottles.
• The PET water bottles require more fossil fuel than the PLA water bottles.
This is due in a large part to the feedstock energy of the PET water bottles.
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Alternative to PLA and PET
However PP, which is polypropylene, may be a good alternative to PLA cups. It takes way less energy to make, and to break down PP than PLA. It also creates fewer CO2 emissions during its life cycle than PLA.

“Greenhouse gas emissions are closely related to system fossil energy, and thus the
trends observed for system fossil energy requirements also apply to system greenhouse
gas emissions. The PP cup produces the lowest amount of CO2 equivalents. The PLA
2005 drink cup produces a significantly greater amount of CO2 equivalents than the PP
drink cup. This is due to the fact that much of the fossil fuel used in the PP drink cup is
from feedstock energy, which is bound within the product and therefore does not produce
greenhouse gases.”

All of the information above was from the study of different types of plastic and their life cycles:

-Catherine Lee

Our current containers for hot drinks are the community coffee cups which provide a cheap yet environmentally questionable option for the Pace snack bar. The cups are recyclable but due to the style and resemblance to paper cups they are often thrown away. The cups are made from polystyrene that can take up to 500 years to decompose if it is not properly recycled.

Community Coffee Cups
- Number 6 recycling (Polystyrene)
- Difficult to recycle, but able to be recycled through curbside program in Atlanta.
- Polystyrene
o Slightly hazardous to health
§ Increases when contents are hot or fatty
o One cup takes 500 years to decompose

Bring Your Own Cup (BYOC)
Here is an example of a collapsible 12-ounce plastic up that can easily fit in someone’s pocket or a purse:
This story exemplifies the usefulness of bringing your own cup. It saves energy and saves you money

PLA concern:

PLA cups break down into water and carbon dioxide over time. Putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere raises a question: Is PLA really an environmentally friendly material? The answer is yes, here’s why:

- When petroleum based plastic is burned, it emits large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Carbon that is released from fossil fuel combustion originates from carbon sinks, which are inactive in the Carbon cycle. This upsets the delicate balance of Carbon in the air.

- Creating plastic from corn however, maintains the balance of active carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plants themselves are active in the cycle, and help to absorb carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen.
external image carbon-cycle.png?w=460&h=268
Jordan Gonzalez

An Alternative To Both PLA and PET: PP (Polypropylene)

What are the costs:

7 oz Plastic Cold Cup: 1000 cups/case for $61.50
9 oz Plastic Cold Cup: 1000 cups/case for $72.20

Pros of Using Polypropylene:

-has excellent water resistance
-cheaper than the cups we are currently using
-also resistant to salt and acidic solutions (those are destructive to metals)
-since it is used in ketchup bottles, yogurt containers, medicine bottles and pancake syrup bottles these cups could be recycled with those materials
-uses 15% less plastic than the traditional PET cup that we use now
-has 45% less carbon emissions than the PET cup
-has less of a carbon footprint than the PLA cup does
-sturdy and shatter proof
-economically priced

Cons of Using Polypropylene:

-can only be used for cold drinks
-it has to be recycled in a separately from PET plastic because it has a much higher melting point
-since we are probably not going to eliminate the use of plastic bottles, we would have to have two different types of recycling bins, which could cause confusion
Kelcie Schofield