Styrofoam cups are convenient because they are cheap and lightweight. We often use them for take-out containers, disposable coffee cups, coolers, and packing materials, but what do they cost the planet?
Styrofoam, or polystyrene, is a public health hazard because it hurts the environment and our health.
Here is everything you need to know about the environmental impact of Styrofoam cups, why cities and towns are banning them, and how you can help the planet by choosing Styrofoam alternatives!
Styrofoam Cups - Environmental Impact
1. Land and Water Pollution
Americans reportedly throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups every year. Styrofoam cups are non-biodegradable. Throwing away this much single-use plastic is harmful for several reasons.
First, Styrofoam cups are non-biodegradable. Instead of breaking down over time, Styrofoam cups break into tiny pieces and stay in the environment for hundreds of years. What’s more, they take up valuable space in our landfills and leach harmful chemicals into the environment.
Second, Styrofoam cups are difficult to clean up. Styrofoam often escapes waste collection systems and accumulates on land and in water because it is easily windblown. Pieces of Styrofoam show up in our parks, forests, beaches, oceans, and rivers.
For instance, the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation claims that its volunteers collected 12,575 pieces of Styrofoam from their beaches in one year.
2. Harm to Animal Life
Pollution caused by Styrofoam is not only unpleasant to look at, but it is also harmful to our planet’s animal life.
Animals often mistake Styrofoam for food and ingest it, causing harm or death due to starvation, choking, or chemical buildup in the digestive system.
According to the United Nations, this harmful process has devastating ripple effects.
When animals ingest Styrofoam, they are cannot complete their natural functions, which disturbs the ecosystem and impacts the health of the ecological community.
Furthermore, the negative impact comes back to humans because we eat marine life that has ingested Styrofoam. According to National Geographic, humans eat thousands of microplastics every year.
The infographic below from Sustainable Coastlines provides data on the debris with the biggest impact on our marine life.
3. Contribution to Global Warming
Styrofoam also contributes to global warming.
To illustrate, for every Styrofoam cup that is manufactured, 0.07229 pounds of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. The United States produces about 3 million tons of Styrofoam every year. As a result, manufacturing Styrofoam cups releases approximately 21 million tons of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere every year.
Additionally, water is a key component of the production process. The water used in the manufacturing of Styrofoam must be treated and cleaned before it is disbursed back into the water supply. This process also releases CO2 into the atmosphere, approximately 1.3 million tons every year.
While CO2 is not inherently bad (it is found naturally in our environment and is essential for our survival), too much CO2 from unnecessary and artificial means overheats the planet and acts as a pollutant.
Since Styrofoam causes more harm than good, it doesn’t make sense to keep manufacturing when there are plenty of acceptable alternatives
Styrofoam Health Concerns
1. Cancer Causing Carcinogens
Styrofoam is made of benzene and styrene; both are carcinogens that pose health risks to producers and consumers of Styrofoam.
Workers with long-term exposure to benzene and styrene are more likely to develop leukemia and lymphoma. Short-term exposure can impact the central nervous system, with symptoms including headache, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, malaise, and difficulty concentrating.
Additionally, it can cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation, as well as digestive effects.
2. Food Contamination
Consumers are also exposed to styrene. Food and beverages consumed from Styrofoam containers and cups often contains styrene that has leached out.
Food that is high in fat, at a high temperature, or has been in Styrofoam containers for a long time has a higher chance of being contaminated.
Remember, you should never microwave food in Styrofoam containers, and you should avoid drinking beverages, such as coffee, out of Styrofoam cups.
Some communities feel that the only way to completely stop the environmental impacts of Styrofoam cups is to ban them completely.
State and City Styrofoam Bans
Styrofoam bans have been passed at the state and city level. Maine was the first state to ban it and many others such as New York and New Jersey have followed with Connecticut right behind.
However, some bans have been delayed due to supply chain issues. Inflation and supply chain constraints can make it difficult to procure approved containers and cups.
Opponents of Styrofoam Bans
Opponents of the ban also cite increased costs to consumers and small restaurants because recyclable or biodegradable food containers can be more expensive.
This is a widely debated topic as some parties feel a ban is necessary and would immediately reduce litter. Other parties disagree and say that there is little evidence to prove that bans have helped the environment.
There are plenty of alternatives to Styrofoam!
When shopping for disposable items, such as cups, look for plant-based or compostable options.
How to find Styrofoam Alternatives
1. Decide how you will use the cups
Will you be using the cups for cold drinks at a party or a hot cup of coffee at home? Those factors will come into play with the durability and style of the cup.
Furthermore, what sustainability qualities are important to you? Will you compost the cup at home, or will you throw it away?
For instance, some products says, “compostable in commercial facilities”, so you might not be able to compost those at home.
2. Read the label carefully and look for certain keywords
Review the label and look for keywords such as bamboo, plastic-free, biodegradable, compostable, or plant based.
3. Check out the options below!
This compostable cup has high ratings on Amazon.
It is made from Bamboo and corn-starch-based materials making it 100% natural and biodegradable. Furthermore, it is sturdy, plastic-free and can handle hot or cold beverages.
It is the best compostable cup we have seen!
Similarly, these cups are 100% biodegradable and won’t pollute the planet. They are made of unbleached Kraft paper with PLA coating so won’t leach plastics into your beverage.
These plain compostable cups have all the features of the ones listed above but are perfect for coffee because they have a rolled rim that fits all standard 90 mm lids.
Lastly, these 100% biodegradable cups have a neat grass design to let the world know your ecofriendly stance.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why was Styrofoam invented?
Ray McIntire invented Styrofoam by accident. Polystyrene already existed and was a good insulator. However, it was too brittle.
Ray was trying to develop a more flexible insulator. He combined styrene with isobutylene under pressure. When the pressure was released, he found that the isobutylene evaporated and made a foam polystyrene with bubbles in it.
“Styrofoam” was born and picked up quickly because it was 30x lighter and more flexible than Polystyrene used to be.
2. Is Styrofoam recyclable?
Styrofoam is only recyclable in certain instances. For example, the Styrofoam must be clean before it is processed.
Unfortunately, most Styrofoam products are used in the food-service industry, so they are usually contaminated with food residue and cannot be recycled.
Furthermore, recycling Styrofoam is very expensive. If recycling plants had clean Styrofoam to recycle, they would lose money processing it. It doesn’t make sense economically.
Recycling costs $3000 per ton of polystyrene and the resale price is only $120 per ton.
Rather than pay the high costs, plants send Styrofoam to landfills instead, which is why it makes up 30% of the items in our landfills.
3. Why can’t we burn Styrofoam instead of sending it to the landfill?
Burning Styrofoam releases toxic chemicals and smoke into the air and can damage the nervous system and lungs.
4. Why should we ban Styrofoam?
In our opinion, banning Styrofoam is the only way to stop production and limit unnecessary pollution.
The costs of manufacturing and using Styrofoam, both from a health and environmental perspective, seem to outweigh the benefits. We think that banning Styrofoam would move the needle and help our planet.
5. Aren’t plant-based or compostable alternatives more expensive than Styrofoam?
We recognize that the compostable alternatives are more expensive, and each business and organization will have to decide how they handle the increased costs.
However, studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products. The study notes that companies should prepare for sustainability to become the expectation and not the exception in the future.
For instance, a recent survey showed that 56% of respondents prefer a restaurant that uses eco-friendly packaging.
We think that restaurants, businesses, and organizations that are slow to adapt and prefer to use cheaper Styrofoam products will eventually lose customers and support.
6. Which products are best for hot food or beverages?
Reusable cups, mugs, bowls, and plates that you can wash after using are best. They often keep your food or beverage warm and will last for a long time.
However, if you need to use disposable items then buying compostable or biodegradable cups, bowls, and plates is preferred.
7. Which brands are good Styrofoam alternatives?
There are brands like Repurpose that make plant-based, non-toxic, sustainable cups, bowls, plates, and utensils.
Repurpose has replaced over 400 million pieces of plastic with their products!
8. What can I do to minimize the environmental impact of Styrofoam cups?
Avoid Styrofoam at all costs. It can help to always carry a reusable water bottle with you.
When ordering takeout, try asking for minimal packaging and utensils. A lot of delivery services offer that option now!
If you are dining at an establishment with ecofriendly disposable products, let the owner or manager know that you appreciate the sustainable options. They will appreciate your business and the recognition and will be more inclined to offer additional ecofriendly products.
We can each do our part to limit the environmental impact of Styrofoam cups. Let us know what actions you are taking in the comments below!
I’m more interested in the global warming aspect of styrene cups.Reply
Paper cups emit almost one quarter pound of CO2 during manufacture, that is very bad, not to mention they are made of trees.
Irresponsible disposal of waste is a separate issue. My trash goes into sealed containers and is buried, therefore minimal contamination of the environment.
Almost all the styrene plastic pollution on earth is a result of failed recycling efforts.
How much CO2 is produced in the manufacture of styrofoam cups?