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Health, sustainability, and bamboo cups

By Steffen Andersen · 23. July 2020

Are bamboo cups really sustainable? More and more bamboo products such as cups, plates, cutlery, and etc. are being sold sustainable, plastic-free, and degradable. But is that always the case? 

Bamboo cups and plastic? 

Bamboo cups have been an area of interest for the German Health-Institute and the consumer organization Stiftung Warentest. The Stiftung Warentest made an evaluation of 12 different kinds of bamboo cups, and they found that in all instances the cups contained plastic. They actually found that in some cases 25% of the cups were made of plastic even though the cups were sold to be made of 100% bamboo. 

When the bamboo cups are sold as degradable this would be the same as claiming paper cups to being degradable in nature. Since the paper cups have a coating of either PLA- or PE-plastic to be able to contain drinks, they are not able to degrade in nature, almost just as a plastic cup. When bamboo cups contain a rather high percentage of plastic, they are not able to degrade in nature but if they contain a lower percentage of plastic they can degrade in nature. It would take a longer time than expected and what would be good for nature, and if they are to be degraded in nature it would leave behind quite a lot of microplastics. 

When bamboo cups are advertised as being sustainable and degradable it makes consumers and businesses who want to support sustainable products take wrong decisions. It both makes the buyers feel cheated and the industry seems like some who don’t want to offer sustainable products but just make a quick extra dollar. 

Health and bamboo cups?

In many of the cases where plastic has been used in the production of bamboo cups, the plastic-type that is used is melamine plastic. The German Health Institute actually found that in many of the bamboo melamine products, they emit excessive amounts of unwanted, harmful chemicals. 

Most of these bamboo melamine products does comply with the demands for emit-effect when they are tested as new products. The main problem is though that when the bamboo products are used for hot food and drink, the spread of these chemicals increases the more times it is used. This is due to that melamine can be degraded if coming into contact with food and especially hot foods. This makes it difficult for the user to know when the spreading effect exceeds the threshold of when it cannot influence your health-condition.

In the investigation made by the German Heal Institute, they tested 366 different bamboo cups and found that in ⅓ of the cups emitted too many chemicals than what they were allowed to. They actually emitted 30 times higher than the acceptable intake (TD1) for adults and up to 120 times higher for children. The intake of too much of these chemicals can be carcinogenic that can damage the bladder and kidneys.

Due to bamboo cups emitting more of these dangerous chemicals than first expected, it actually resulted in that the discount shop Aldi last year had to recall their bamboo cups in most of their shops around the world. 

This article has shown a lot of skepticism towards bamboo cups and been talking a lot about the negative sides of bamboo cups. But it is important for us to state that bamboo cups does not only have negative effects on health issues and the environment. If the bamboo cups are made of the only bamboo and do not contain any plastic, they are degradable in nature and can be a good alternative to other disposable cups. 

Comparison of sustainability of paper and bamboo cups

When comparing paper and bamboo cups the first place to start is whether they are degradable or not. As we have covered in the previous sections then paper cups are coated with plastic, and they are not able to degrade in nature. But if they are coated with PLA plastic they are biodegradable in industrial compost. Whereas bamboo cups are of course not degradable in nature if they contain plastic. If the bamboo cups do not contain plastic, they will degrade in nature over time – the problem is though that it takes many years for the cups to degrade in nature. So the most environmentally friendly option for bamboo and paper cups are to throw them out, so they can be burned and turned into energy.

When it comes to recyclability, the short answer is that both paper cups and bamboo cups cannot be recycled. The reason is that it is almost impossible to recycle materials that have been used as food contact materials.

The last area we need to cover in regards to sustainability is the co2 emission of paper and bamboo. The first thing to take into consideration the materials is that bamboo helps reduce co2 in the air 4 times more than the equivalent area of the tree, but it does also generate 35% more oxygen. 

So it seems like bamboo has gotten a head start. But when it comes to production, and using the materials in the production of the cups the bamboo actually emits more co2 than paper, this is because bamboo is much more difficult material to work with and there has to be used a lot more bamboo for producing these cups, than paper. It is though important to add that bamboo cups often er reusable cups, and are used again and again. There is of course a break-even where bamboo cups will be better in terms of co2-emission. When choosing between paper- and bamboo cups, it is important to take purpose into consideration. If you are able to reuse them, then choose bamboo-cups but are you going to a fair or festival where they only will be used one time, then choose paper cups.

The last thing to take into consideration is the transportation of the materials, and since almost all bamboo is grown in Asia, it needs to be transported all the way to Europe before they can be used. Whereas paper cups that are produced in Europe, also use paper from trees grown in Europe. 

Conclusion on bamboo 

When it comes to bamboo cups it is important to be aware that many of them contain plastic, and a rather high percentage of them contain melamine plastic, which can be really harmful to the user’s health if they are used to many times for hot drinks. So if you are looking for bamboo cups, make sure that they are produced as 100% bamboo cups, but this can be really difficult to know since the bamboo cups that contain plastic are still branded as environmentally friendly and degradable. And when it comes to whether bamboo cups are more sustainable than paper cups, the answer is that it depends on the aspect that you value the highest. The bamboo cups without plastic can degrade in nature, but none of the cups can be recycled and bamboo cups emit more co2 than paper cups do.

Content and Marketing Manager at Limepack

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