AQUEOUS or “Plastic Free” Cups: Why We Are Proceeding With Caution

aqueous plastic-free cups

Companies are looking towards plastic-free solutions due to growing concerns for plastic in the environment and regulatory compliance. Aqueous, or water-based barrier, coated cups are becoming more popular as a response. At BioPak, we are eager to provide solutions that mitigate the use of fossil-based plastics, achieve the required functional requirements, and provide a product that can be responsibly disposed of. However, there is general knowledge lacking on how aqueous coated cups behave in composting or recycling facilities and the context of claiming plastic-free. This is why we are proceeding with caution.

The water-based barrier coating is a form of barrier that is applied through a water-based dispersion of polymers and other additives onto paperboard. The dispersion coating is primarily formulated with a water-based latex emulsion. Polymers used can vary by type – styrene-butadiene and a group of acrylate-based polymers are the most common.

One main advantage of applying a water-based barrier coating is the reduction of plastic in the product. Aqueous coated products can range from containing <.75% to >8% of plastic, so while less plastic is used compared to conventional plastic coatings, there can be an unspecified amount of plastic used. Conventional coated paper cups are typically extruded or laminated with fossil-based PE that makes up between 8% to 15% of the cup by weight.

Water-based barrier coatings can greatly reduce the amount of plastic in a product, but the question remains if there is ever a position for the product to be labelled as “plastic-free”. The aqueous coating is by definition, not plastic-free. However, based on the Single-Use Plastic Directive (Directive (EU) 2019/904), guideline, it’s unclear if a paperboard product containing a water-based coating will be seen as a “plastic product”.

Increased demands for plastic-free solutions and confusing regulatory guidelines can create a market of unsubstantiated claims. We are working with industry and research organisations to fully understand the environmental risks of these materials from a life-cycle perspective.

There are a number of companies in Australia and New Zealand marketing “Plastic Free” Cups. These cups are in fact not plastic free. 

For years, BioPak has worked to educate businesses and the general public on the unsustainable characteristics of plastic and how it has become an unwanted geographic feature of our collective landscape and earth's biosphere. Exposing the truth is a critical step in holding businesses accountable — in the courts, in boardrooms, and in the public eye. We are undertaking the required research regarding aqueous coating formulations in order to protect people and the planet for generations to come.

Industry denial and obstruction are not a thing of the past — they are active and ongoing. And so is our work to expose and confront those denial efforts, including confronting a growing array of plastic free solutions that could potentially have a detrimental impact on the environment.

BioPak is more than just about compostable packaging, we envision a future in which materials are made from sustainably sourced rapidly renewable biological resources, and recycled back to the soil. No waste, no plastics or other substances polluting soils. And leaving oil and gas in the ground. As the world focuses on developing a more sustainable circular economy and governments align policy to address plastic pollution, we must remain vigilant and ensure that new materials do not have unintended environmental consequences. 

Companies are scrambling to find cost effective and functional replacements for billions of single use plastic products and new solutions are rapidly being deployed. Paper and cardboard have always been part of food packaging, but they have gained prominence in the last year with the introduction of global single use plastic bans. There already are alternatives that aim at reducing the use of plastic laminates on paper in the market, most of which are based on aqueous dispersions. 

Many manufacturers of aqueous coatings are reluctant to disclose their formulations for fear of losing a competitive advantage. With only 1% of the more than 40 000 chemicals actually tested for safety, rather than simply accepting that these products are safe for food contact applications, we have initiated our own research into these materials and currently have more questions than answers.

We are working with industry and research organisations to fully understand the environmental risks of these materials and to find the answers to our question:

  • Do all the components of aqueous coatings completely biodegrade in an industrial compost facility and do they have any adverse impact on compost quality? 


The impact of packaging waste on the environment can be minimized by prudently selecting materials, and understanding the impact at every stage in the products lifecycle. Knowledgeable efforts by industry, government, and consumers will promote continued improvement, and an understanding of the environmental impact of packaging will ensure that new solutions don’t have an adverse impact on  the environment.

There is a potential that all paper cups in Australia and New Zealand are to be made from this material in future. This would result in the use of approximately 800 tons of aqueous coatings, this is only one product application and there are many more aqueous coated packaging formats being developed, we must therefore ensure that we proceed with caution.

Ad Standards Finds Coffee Cup Wholesaler Made Misleading Environmental Claims

The Ad Standards Industry Jury has found – following a complaint from competitor BioPak – Pinnacle International Wholesalers’ (Pinnacle) claims that its disposable coffee cups were plastic-free, fully recyclable and compostable were in breach of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Ethics.

An article published on Ad Standards’ website stated: “The case serves as an important reminder to advertisers they must hold sound documentary evidence to support claims consumers are likely to regard as objective and are capable of objective substantiation, before publishing their advertising or marketing communication.” Read More >

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