What really happens to those "green" disposable cups?

What really happens to those "green" disposable cups?

Americans toss billions of disposable cups into the trash each year, which then go to the landfill where they sit for years. So it sounded great when restaurants, such as Boloco burrito chain in the Northeast and Tully's Coffee on the West Coast, started offering smoothies and java, respectively, in biodegradable cups. But are biodegradable cups as good as they sound?

Most paper cups have a waterproof inner lining to keep liquid from leaking through the paper. In traditional paper hot cups, this lining is made from petroleum, which doesn't break down and isn't a renewable resource. Biodegradable hot cups, on the other hand, have linings made from renewable resources, such as corn, potato or sugarcane. Biodegradable cold cups are made entirely from these bioplastics. These cups break down into earth-friendly compost that can be used to fortify soil. But here's the rub: "There's no real point in using [biodegradable cups] unless you're sending them to composting facilities," says Steven Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute. When biodegradable cups are tossed in the trash, they're sent to the landfill, where they sit alongside the rest of our garbage.

Right now, many restaurants don't compost their biodegradable products because commercial composting isn't widely available. (Tully's is already working with composters and Boloco anticipates doing so in the future.) And taking your cup home to compost it won't help: the cups won't break down in home composters because the compost doesn't get hot enough, says Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association.

Bottom line: Restaurants that have switched from standard disposable cups to biodegradable cups are moving in the right direction because they're not contributing to the production of petroleum-containing products. But don't get too hung up on the biodegradable bandwagon-most of the cups aren't being composted. The greenest practice is to bring your own mug.

The History of the Disposable Cup:

c. 1900:

"The common cup" is available at communal drinking-areas for people to share.


New ideas about sanitation inspire the first disposable paper cup, sealed with paraffin.


BASF The Chemical Company introduces the first polystyrene cup (commonly referred to as Styrofoam ®).


Nathaniel C. Wyeth, working for DuPont, invents the plastic soda bottle.


Disposable, biodegradable hot and cold cup patent is issued.

January/February 2009