“Ecotainer” cups provide some relief for overcrowded landfills

By Samantha Murphy

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In the case of the typical University of Massachusetts student, it is not uncommon to bear witness to the plague of solo cups and beer cans that line fraternity row early Sunday mornings. Of course, most students are respectable enough to clean up after their weekend endeavors; it is a generally accepted fact that red cups do not make the best lawn ornaments.

As ugly as the solo cup plague may be, it could be considered a bearable sight compared with the gruesome spectacle that is a landfill. In the United States, around 58 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown away each year.

To the relief of many environmentalist soft drink lovers, a number of dining facilities at UMass use biodegradable “Ecotainer” cups provided by Coca-Cola. Instead of petroleum-based plastic, these cups are coated on the inside with a compostable bioplastic called Ingeo, made by NatureWorks.

The Ecotainer was born in 2006. The next year, a group of eco-conscious students at the University of Washington demanded their campus make an effort to drastically reduce the amount of waste it produced. The students were pleased to see that the food services management team responded by supporting the cause and implementing a ban on plastic and foam containers.

Their motto soon became, “striving for zero-waste through composting,” and it wasn’t long before the University was working closely with eco-friendly suppliers and a local composting facility to divert as much trash from the landfill as possible. Everything from takeout containers to spoons could be placed into designated composting bins set up in the dining facilities. The only issue was that the takeout cups, provided by Coca-Cola, could not be composted because of the petroleum-based plastic they are lined with.

Michael Meyering, the head of the UW food services department, approached Coke and challenged them to provide a biodegradable soft drink cup that could be composted along with the rest of the University’s waste.

Coke accepted the challenge and worked with International Paper to create the Ecotainer, which made its first appearance in UW Cafeterias in 2008. The cup was a success on campus and its introduction was accompanied by a 15 percent increase in fountain drink sales. The product was later made available nationwide and it proved to be a hit among other universities, vendors and even sports venues looking to adopt more eco-friendly waste management policies.

Of course, the invention of the Ecotainer does not make a real impact on the overwhelming amount of solid waste that enters landfills each day. The ultimate goal to achieve zero-waste should be to cut down drastically on consumption, while also working with the current system as it adjusts to a more sustainable path.

So the question remains: Can I toss my Blue Wall cup into the vegetable garden? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Ingeo bioplastic is designed to break down in industrial composting facilities, where temperature and moisture levels are optimal for the rapid breakdown of organic material. Institutions must work with industrial composting facilities to properly manage compostable material that is being diverted from the landfill.

Another misconception seems to be that biodegradable packaging will decompose in landfills. The truth is that close to nothing that enters a landfill will return in a useful manner to the environment. The toxic and tightly packed conditions are not suitable for the typical microorganisms that break down organic matter.

So biodegradable packaging is a very small and imperfect step in the right direction, but this isn’t a story about how a cup saved the world. This isn’t even a story about the cup itself. The Ecotainer embodies something much bigger than a cup.

The Ecotainer represents the power of consumer demand and, more importantly, the power of the student voice. In the first year of its waste diversion program, the University of Washington was successful in diverting 540 tons of waste from the landfill. All of this was the result of a group of students who asked their university and a multinational corporation to be more mindful of what they put into the trash. And they listened.

Samantha Murphy is a Collegian contributor. She can be reached at [email protected]