Styrofoam cups are convenient because they are cheap, lightweight and durable. However, it is important to understand how these attributes impact the environment.
Americans reportedly throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups every year!
Unfortunately, Styrofoam is non-biodegradable. Instead of breaking down completely overtime, Styrofoam cups break into tiny pieces and stay in the environment for hundreds of years.
Styrofoam is a harmful substance partly because it is difficult to clean up. It escapes waste collection systems and accumulates on land and in water because it is easily windblown. Even when Styrofoam is collected properly, it often isn’t recycled because it costs too much money ($3,000 per ton). Less than 1% of foam plastic is recycled because it doesn’t make economic sense. As a result, 80% of Styrofoam products end up in landfills while most of the remaining 20% accumulates in our parks, forests, beaches, oceans, and rivers.
The San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation claims that its volunteers collected 12,575 pieces of Styrofoam from their beaches in 2017. The amount of single-use plastic littered on our planet’s land and water is shocking.
Pollution caused by Styrofoam is not only unpleasant to look at, but it also harms animal life. Animals often mistake Styrofoam as food and ingest it. This causes harm or death due to starvation, choking or chemical buildup in the digestive system.
The United Nations Environment program notes that this has a ripple effect. When animals, such as fish, ingest garbage they are not able to complete their natural functions. Humans then eat these animals which is not healthy either.
The infographic below from Sustainable Coastlines provides data on the debris that has the biggest impact on our marine life.
It is estimated that the process of manufacturing Styrofoam cups releases approximately 21 million tons of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the production process involves using petroleum which is a finite resource that creates pollution and accelerates climate change.
Some communities feel that the only way to completely stop the environmental impacts of Styrofoam cups is to ban them completely. New York City’s ban on Styrofoam containers went into effect on January 1, 2019, after a lawsuit prevented the ban from passing for about six years. It can be difficult for states and municipalities to pass bans because of opposing views. A lot of people feel that a ban would immediately reduce litter. Others disagree and say that there is little evidence to prove that bans have helped the environment.
Some restaurants have realized the negative impacts of Styrofoam and have stopped using them. Consumers have also persuaded restaurants to ban Styrofoam. For example, a professional surfer in Hawaii, recently convinced a popular restaurant to replace their single-use Styrofoam cups with compostable cups. The restaurant agreed and it is estimated that this one decision will keep around 48,000 Styrofoam cups out of Hawaii. More and more restaurants in Hawaii are following suit. This eco-friendly philosophy has the ability to increase brand awareness and attract new customers.
The most obvious step individuals can take to avoid single use plastic cups is to carry around reusable bottles and mugs whenever possible.
However, sometimes it does make sense to use disposable cups in your home, at a meeting or during an event. Instead of reaching for a traditional single use cup try an eco-friendly alternative like the one below!
Although not perfect, these are at least responsibly made and can break down in our environment unlike traditional Styrofoam. Try it now and see for yourself!