Too Many Solo Cups: Solving Our Event Plastic Waste Problem at UBC

Canadians are addicted to plastic. But in Canada, 90 percent of recyclable plastics end up in the landfill or are incinerated. The Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) recognized the scale of this issue, and approached our policy team to come up with solutions to reduce their plastic cup use at events held in the Engineering Student Centre, a LEED certified building among the most sustainable on UBC campus. We looked at this problem in two ways: what are some short-term and long-term sustainable solutions that reduce single use plastic cup waste?

The Engineering Undergraduate Society recognized that plastic and waste issues are primarily a problem of convenience. Any proposed solution, for both the short-term and long-term, must be convenient for the event organizers and event attendees. We also considered the proposed options ability to reduce waste, minimize cost, and ensure continuity of the waste reduction proposal.

Our policy team attended two events held at the Engineering Student Centre. One event did not have any alcohol, whereas the other event had alcohol available for purchase. The event that had alcohol had more than twice the number of cups used per person.

No Alcohol Available Alcohol Available
Number of participants 462 633
Number of cups 545 1675
Cups per person 1.2 2.6

After our study and policy analysis, we investigated three proposed options for the Engineering Undergraduate Society: purchase biodegradable cups, include a biodegradable cup requirement in the event organizer damage deposit, or purchase reusable cups and a bar washer.

Cups (1).png

Based on our research and engagement with the UBC Student Sustainability Council, we leaned that biodegradable plastic cups cannot be composted in Metro Vancouver facilities. While biodegradable cups are a simple solution to effectively reduce plastic pollution in the short-term, they still contribute to long-term landfill waste. Although biodegradable cups are a good short-term solution to immediately reduce plastic waste, reusable cups are the best long-term option for sustainability and waste-reduction.

Switching to biodegradable cups would eliminate 1507 plastic cups from the landfill per event, based on the proportion of recyclable cups that are disposed in the garbage. The use of reusable cups by the EUS will save nearly 23,000 plastic cups from the landfill every year. While upfront costs associated with the purchase of a commercial bar washer and reusable cups are surprisingly high, the long-term cost reductions allow the EUS to recoup their costs of switching to reusable cups in less than two years.

Moving forward with UBC and Vancouver’s strategic vision for sustainability and circular economy, we have found that biodegradable plastic cups cannot be substituted for long-term solutions. There are significant consumer information gaps and a lack of clarity about what is defined as ‘compostable’ in Vancouver. Our analysis suggests that there is a need for improved sustainability communication, particularly on plastic waste.