PE lining on paper cups can jeopardise the environment; here’s how to mitigate its side effects

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Ved Krishna is Vice-Chairman, Yash Pakka Ltd. Sun Paper China

PE lining on paper cups can jeopardise the environment; here’s how to mitigate its side effects

Paper cups are extensively used as an alternative to plastic cups, as the former are affordable, recyclable and can be broken down faster than plastic. However, most paper cups are coated with polyethylene (PE), making them non-biodegradable or non-compostable. PE lining is the most common method followed worldwide to prevent leakage in paper cups and make them more durable. Although PE coated cup papers are recyclable, recycling is time-consuming and needs special facilities, resulting in most PE-coated paper ending up in landfills and water bodies in countries with coastlines. The plastic waste in marine bodies leads to generation of micro plastics which can cause toxic effects on fish and other aquatic life, including reducing food intake, delaying growth, causing oxidative damage and abnormal behavior. As per a report, more than 600 billion cups are produced and sold worldwide yearly, but only 1 per cent of the waste is recycled. PE is harmful to human health and ecology; it has become a cause of concern owing to its extensive use and slow degradation in the environment.

What makes PE lined paper cups popular among the masses?

While PE lined paper cups are not recyclable from the expense perspective, it has witnessed an increasing demand recently. The reasons behind the surge in demand can be attributed to factors like cost-effectiveness, heat, and liquid resistance. Today, many restaurants and cafes are using reusable paper products lined with PE to deliver their food to customers and are reluctant to switch to 100% compostable alternatives because consumers assume these paper products as sustainable. It is time to educate consumers that the paper cups or plates that they see in restaurants are mostly PE lined. Consumers must be made aware that several restaurants still project themselves as environment-conscious brands that are not actually contributing anything to reduce carbon footprints.

Without a recyclable solution, PE lined paper cups tend to pose more hazards to the environment as they are not biodegradable.

Consumers should be able to identify the right product that does not harm the environment and demand restaurants and cafes to switch to compostable products by projecting the benefits of compostability. They should also carry their own water bottles to avoid using these hazardous cups

Despite growing consumer demand for plastic-free cups and packaging solutions, PE lining has been used by the food and beverage industry for years. PE lining on paper cups retains heat and prevents liquid leakage. However, PE limits the recyclability of paper cups. Manufacturers of paper cups are now searching for alternatives in the form of agri-residue, areca palm and bamboo to make their products more environmentally friendly. The last few years have witnessed a shift towards adopting agri based residues like bagasse, rice straw, wheat straw and rice husk and other recyclable packaging solutions like cotton bags, jute bags and paper bags. Companies are working towards making leak proof sustainable cups which are environmentally friendly, they are experimenting today and these sustainable cups might be a thing of the future.

For instance, bagasse, the by-product of sugarcane, is used to make tablewares that are sustainable and compostable but as robust as their plastic counterparts. Owing to the increasing demand for sustainable food packaging solutions, the global market for bagasse tableware items is expected to expand at 6.8% CAGR between 2021 and 2031. Bagasse is also witnessing growth in quick-service restaurants, mobile food vendors, online food ordering business, and catering services creating prospects of growth in the market. Bagasse tableware products are replacing products made out of non-biodegradable plastics in wake of the increasing trend for adoption of sustainable living practices. Customers in the market can currently take measures by shifting to alternative reusable products like bamboo bottles and other such alternatives. Additionally, alternative brands like CHUK are trying to innovate new alternatives to paper cups with ongoing research and development using sugarcane waste bagasse to reduce common issues like leakage to create a viable sustainable alternative.

The government must take initiatives to spread awareness of the impact of PE lining tableware products on the environment. Alternatives must be popularized to bridge the gap in the market ahead of banning PE coated paper products.

PE lining is used to render strength and firmness to the product. But the increasing usage of PE lining is leading to health hazards for human beings and harming the environment. In such a position, bagasse-based tableware can be used as an alternative to making cups as they are thicker and more rigid compared to paper or plastic cups. Besides opting for compostable alternatives to produce cups, steps should be taken to make regenerative packaging mandatory and bring PE cups under extended producer responsibility (EPR) in order to create a circular economy.

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Views expressed above are the author's own.

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PE lining on paper cups can jeopardise the environment; here’s how to mitigate its side effects

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