Biodegradable Plastic – Myth or Reality?

Sourcer Insight – Biodegradable, Recyclable, and Reusable Plastic Glasses

If you are looking for plastic glasses that biodegrade like apple cores, then look no further… you may see plastic glasses advertised as ‘biodegradable’ but the hard truth is that there is no such thing.

That doesn’t mean that there no good choices to be made though, with some cups definitely being ‘greener’ than others.

This is our guide to selecting and using plastic glasses in the most environmentally friendly way possible:

AVOID ‘biodegradable plastic’: Made from ‘PLA’ (which derives from GM corn), these glasses are marketed as ‘biodegradable’. But you need to know that they will not biodegrade on your compost heap, or as litter, or in the ground, or in the sea. There are no composting facilities in the UK that will accept them, and additionally they contaminate regular plastic recycling, causing whole batches to be sent to land fill that would have been recycled. If you think that makes them sound like a bit of a con, please see the links below for further information. We have easy access to these glasses, but our advice is to avoid them.

AVOID ‘degradable’ plastic: Degradable plastic is regular plastic that has chemicals added to break it down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. With the problem of microplastics becoming clearer, it is surely better to keep the item in one piece. Our advice is to avoid them.

AVOID ‘paper cups’: Paper cups are made from card lined with regular plastic or PLA plastic (see above). As a mixed material, they cannot be recycled in an economically viable and scalable way. Industry is working hard to develop a solution, and there are paid-for recycling schemes, but as of Spring 2018 there is no single-material paper cups available.

GO FOR recycled plastic: There is a type of plastic called PET (type 1). You probably handle PET in some form every day – think fruit punnets, smoothie cups with dome lids and fizzy drink bottles. PET is the UK’s most sought after plastic for recycling and all recycling facilities will readily accept it. The even better news is that you can get plastic glasses made in the UK from recycled PET (rPET). And, of course, as a clear, uncoloured, relatively clean single material, plastic glasses made from rPET can easily be recycled again. Unfortunately PET is not strong enough to support stemware (wine glasses etc), so only tumbler shapes are available.

GO FOR reusable: Reusable glasses can be made from any type of material. In plastic, the quality ranges from short-term-reusable souvenir cups (ideal for events) to amazingly glass-like, dishwasher safe and unbreakable polycarbonate glasses. Please find some of our favourite examples below.

Other Plastic: Polypropylene (type 5) and Crystal Polystyrene (type 6) are used to make most other single-use plastic glasses. While these plastics are not as sought after as PET (see above), they are clean, uncoloured, single material plastic and will readily be accepted in mixed recycling. Polypropylene remains the most inexpensive, while crystal polystyrene remains the only option for stemware.

More reading:


Plastic glasses are easily recycled because:

  1. They are uncoloured: coloured plastic is unwanted because although colour can be added, it cannot be removed.
  2. They are clean:Unlike many other plastics (e.g. food packaging), plastic glasses are relatively uncontaminated.
  3. They are a single material: Disposable plastic glasses are lumps of pure, food-grade plastic of a single type (usually either type 1, 5, or 6).

To maximise the value of your recycling efforts, our advice is to not mix different types of plastic but to keep to a single type. PET (type 1) is the most sought after for recycling, and if you can deliver a batch of uncontaminated PET, your efforts will be rewarded.

Of course, the challenge is to collect the cups in the first place. This can only be done at the event itself. Several years ago, this was not so easy. However, these days, with cup collecting bins now freely available, it is a simple thing to organise.  On a small scale, there are many off-the-shelf choices for on-site cup collection that can be branded with event signage. On a larger scale, cup recycling can be a communication opportunity in itself. Please see this fine example from Coca Cola:

If you would like more information or advice contact us today.

Thanks to our approved Plastics manufacturer for the information