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Myth-busting the belief that paper is more environmentally friendly than plastic

Paper versus plastic cups
Paper coffee cups are lined with polyethylene to prevent the hot coffee from dissolving the paper, which makes the coffee cups usable, but also makes them unrecyclable.

As the conversation during the recent Plastics Pioneers Association meeting in Santa Fe, NM, turned to the issue of plastic waste, recycling and alternative solutions that many U.S. cities are considering, including plastic bans, I glanced at my coffee and juice cups at breakfast one morning. There they were—the evil polypropylene juice cup sitting alongside a supposedly eco-friendly paper coffee cup. (I didn’t put the paperboard wrap on my coffee cup in an effort to save trees.)

As we discussed this interesting fact, I was reminded of how uninformed people making these choices really are. Someone at the Hilton Santa Fe Plaza had decided that EPS foam coffee cups were not recyclable and, thus, purchased paper coffee cups with the accompanying paperboard wraps to keep consumers from burning their hands.

However, the paper coffee cups are lined with . . . wait for it . . . plastic! Yes, these paper coffee cups are lined with polyethylene (PE) to prevent the hot coffee from dissolving the paper. The plastic lining actually makes these coffee cups usable! But it also makes them unrecyclable and not compostable, to boot. That means that while the PP juice cup is recyclable, the larger PE-lined paper cup that uses far more resources to produce must be thrown in the trash.

There are EPS foam recycling centers that will take these expanded polystyrene foam cups for recycling, but I’m not sure if there’s one near Santa Fe.

When it comes to purchasing these types of items for large hotel and restaurant chains, too many decision-makers miss the boat when it comes to understanding the science of plastics versus paper. They really believe they are being “green” and making the right choices when, in fact, they are being anything but green.

The Albuquerque City Council recently approved a ban on plastic retail bags, which will take effect on Jan. 1, 2020. They gave straws and single-use plastic take-out containers a reprieve . . . for now.

The plastics industry must keep fighting the ignorance that leads companies to make these poor decisions under the mistaken belief that they are making environmentally friendly choices.  It’s up to us in the industry to get the word out and to help companies understand that single use isn’t always single use; that plastics in the environment isn’t a plastic problem, it’s a people problem. The problem won’t be solved until people learn to put their recyclables in the proper recycling bin, and to do that they must be educated in what is recyclable and what isn’t.

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