In his monthly Green column, Chris Johnson quenches our thirst for simple answers – what’s the best sustainable cup to use at an event or festival?

We live on a planet with finite resources and an expanding population. But more imminently, the current scale and nature of resource use is causing widespread pollution, mass extinction of species, and global warming – ultimately undermining the ecological systems and climate that support us.

Throw-away culture contributes to this problem. We need to fundamentally re-examine how we use resources: Use drastically fewer new materials, aim for a circular economy in which we use materials indefinitely wherever possible, or where the energy and value isn’t lost in the lifetime of materials.

Here I briefly consider the options for sustainable cups: Bio-plastics, plastic, paper and reusable cups, for cold and hot drinks.

We are now surrounded by “bio” packaging options. Are they better environmental options? Which are better than others? How can we tell? The simple answer is that none of these materials is a solution to the environmental issues, in almost all event contexts, and for a number of reasons.

Most “bio” packaging is PLA plastic (polylactic acid). Made from various plant-based sources such as corn starch or sugar cane, it’s a polymer often used to substitute petroleum-based plastics like PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Crystalline PLA has low biodegradability in the natural environment and requires a high-heat, industrial facility to compost, of which there are few in the UK. In short, it is not widely recycled in the UK and is designed for disposal.

As a result, PLA cups (and other products) are generally either landfilled or incinerated – the latter resulting in a small amount of energy capture, which is minor compared to the energy input that is lost in manufacture.

There are other problems with PLA. It looks and feels like plastic. This leads to it being indistinguishable from PET and other plastics, both at events, where it can confuse eventgoers from using the correct bins and waste separation efforts on-site, and in waste processing facilities. Composting facilities cannot differentiate between bioplastics and conventional plastics. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) states in its most recent guidance that compostable plastics should be avoided where there is potential for them to contaminate conventional plastics recycling. Many events still use some plastic.

In summary, the environmental justification for using widely available “bio” materials for events is weak.

One way that companies have attempted to address challenges associated with “biodegradable” or “compostable” single-use cups and serveware is to promote “closed loop” or circular services. They are mostly based on the premise that single-use cups are captured at the event and taken by the provider to a dedicated specialist facility that can recycle them. Many providers are offering dedicated bins for their cups to improve capture, but it is often a challenge to successfully capture the majority of a specific material into one stream.

The problems with this approach are that it is perpetuating single use, the materials do not have less environmental impact than recycled PET (rPET) and are not widely recyclable in the UK. And it’s causing consumer confusion, which is a real cause for concern.

Significant plastic-free campaigns in the events industry have demonstrated the appetite for making changes, and, as a result, many organisers have been looking at alternatives to single-use plastic cups.

It’s estimated that at least 100 million single-use plastic cups are used in the UK live events industry annually. So what’s the solution? Recycling? It’s better to recycle than not, but it’s not the solution. Typically, plastic cups (commonly made from PET) are recycled only up to six times, and then become waste. In practice many plastic event cups end up as landfill or incinerated in any case.

If recycling isn’t the answer, what about reusable plastic cups? Research suggests that this can be the best option. Polypropylene (PP) cups can be used more than 75 times and quickly become more environmentally beneficial compared to a single-use cup – the research is conclusive that, even taking into account the washing and transport, re-use beats single use after between three and ten uses (studies differ slightly).

Reusable cup companies, such as Green Goblet, report that the biggest change in the past year is that festivals and events are starting to purchase or rent cups with no branding on, so fewer are taken home, thus increasing re-use rates. This is encouraging, because the benefits of reusable cup initiatives are not realised if a significant percentage are taken home as merchandise or lost to waste streams.

Heineken, at the request of the Dutch Government, has recently published a comprehensive Life Cycle Analysis study of cup types, called Good Cup Bad Cup, which corroborates most previous independent assessments that have been made – that reusable cups are the best environmental option.

Paper has been touted as a solution to replacing plastic, but this is also problematic. Global forests play a unique role, supporting a stunning array of biodiversity, removing and storing carbon, providing sustenance and livelihood to indigenous peoples. The pulp and paper industry is responsible for substantial impacts to the environment, including climate change.

Paper has lower CO2 emissions per tonne but more material is required to achieve the stiffness than a plastic equivalent. In an event industry context paper cups are lined with plastic or PLA to ensure that they do not leak or degrade whilst being used, meaning that they are a mixed material, which is not recyclable or compostable.

The best environmentally sustainable option is reusable cups made from PP plastic or steel for cold drinks and reusable cups for hot drinks. Which is the best reusable hot cup is a whole other topic! If re-use is not a possibility for your next event, as an interim option choose rPET cups for cold drinks and, regrettably, it may be the only practical option to use lined paper cups for hot drinks, preferably with a specialist provider that can process them. As a rule of thumb, steer clear of bio-plastic materials – it simply isn’t a solution.

There is something larger at work in this debate about cups and packaging. In the face of the inescapable truth and public outrage about the damage of plastics and disposable culture, the industry lobbies that stand to lose from change are hard at work on marketing campaigns. Millions of pounds are being spent on promoting a culture of change through the action of individuals, in an attempt to take the focus away from industries, larger companies and the system changes that are needed. By “putting the power in consumers hands”, the responsibility for change is left with the individual.

I believe change is fundamentally the responsibility of the industries and companies who are producing and profiting from these materials.

As an industry, we can play an important and very visible role, choosing the right solutions above the marginal difference in profit for ecologically damaging options, showing leadership and demanding this of the supply chain.