Put down that compostable cup — you may not be helping the planet as much as you think

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

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Spend a day in Berkeley and you’ll soon notice the inordinate number of people holding green coffee cups with a world map printed on them — these cups are compostable and represent a new consumer trend toward green products in a city known for its activism.

Under an economic system known as green capitalism, corporations respond to current environmental issues with the sale of products that claim to be better for the environment, according to San Francisco State University sociology lecturer and part-time UC Berkeley lecturer Fatmir Haskaj.

“It’s become standard corporate practice to include words like sustainability,” Haskaj said. “It’s become a brand, a way of marketing — it’s become a way of selling products.”

Take, for instance, Eco-Products’ certified compostable coffee cups available at Caffe Strada and Free Speech Movement Café — these cups may not actually accomplish what they promise, according to Alastair Iles, a campus associate professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management.

“The cups … say ‘Compostable. Commercial facilities only, which may not exist in your area,’ ” Iles said in an email. “This qualification was inserted not long ago because of criticism that the cups aren’t actually easy to compost.”

While conventional packaging is made from petroleum, Eco-Products uses renewable resources, said Sarah Martinez, Eco-Products’ director of marketing, explaining the purpose of the cups.

“When we think of the environmental impact of products like ours, we think of the products at the beginning of their lives and the end of their lives,” Martinez said. “We think that in a world with increasing population and limited amount of resources, we need to use renewable resources.”

Martinez added that most people are not going to take the time to put food in one bin for composting and the plate in another bin, so compostable packaging creates an important “one-bin solution.”

Iles pointed out, however, that the composition of the cups is important to note in assessing their eco-friendliness.

Many Eco-Products — coffee cups included — are made from “Ingeo,” a compostable plastic made from conventional and genetically modified corn in North America, according to the company’s 2018 sustainability report.

“Bioplastic cups may not really be ‘green,’ ” Iles said in his email. “They may be made from corn, a crop that causes extensive environmental and social problems in the US Midwest.”

Iles noted that corn causes high fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico and creates a massive “dead zone” for marine life.

“Green capitalism neither stops environmental degradation nor restores the environment,” said Noriko Kusumi, a doctoral student in the campus department of environmental science, policy and management. “Actually, green capitalism is not good but less bad.”

Kusumi said she is skeptical that green capitalism can work so long as maximizing profit is the goal.

“If we are seeking the same sort of profit maximization in this capital notion, sustainable development is almost like an oxymoron,” Kusumi said.

Martinez acknowledged that for Eco-Products to achieve zero waste, the company cannot just sell compostable cups, adding that it takes a shift in infrastructure, food service operations and consumer awareness.

Haskaj said consumers are put into a moral dilemma knowing that their purchases create an environmental cost somewhere in the world. He added that consumers are essentially paying a little more money to get rid of their own guilt and act of consumption.

“Corporations — capitalism itself — has mutated in a way that has tried to incorporate that moral dilemma and essentially override it,” Haskaj said. “Places like Starbucks and TOMS shoes have figured that out they are wrapping in that moral cost into the commodity itself.”

Green capitalism puts all the emphasis on individual consumers to fix environmental problems, even though it is underlying economic structures and companies’ decisions that matter much more, Iles said in the email.

“At the end of the day, we find ourselves in a strange position,” Haskaj said. “If we reject all this stuff, what are we left with? No one’s willing to rebuild the system by scratch.”

Contact Alyssa Bernardino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alybernardino.