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Styrofoam Cups

Why are Styrofoam Coffee Cups Bad for the Environment?

What is something that helps to keep coffee hot and shipped materials safe? Styrofoam. However, the material has sparked controversy in recent years for good reason.

It has proven to be very useful, but unfortunately, its use comes with complications for our planet and our health. Let’s get to the bottom of the question: why are Styrofoam coffee cups bad for the environment?

styrofoam cup in ocean

What is Styrofoam?

“Styrofoam” is the registered trademarked name for a Dow Chemical Company building material product. However, it’s often used when talking about anything made with expanded polystyrene (EPS). This includes things like packing peanuts, egg cartons, foam packaging, building insulation, and disposable coffee cups.

How Are Styrofoam Cups Made?

Like other plastics, polystyrene is a polymer; a long repeating chain of monomers (small molecules). It is made from hydrocarbons like benzene and ethylene, which require raw materials like natural gas and petroleum. 

At the beginning of the manufacturing process, polystyrene starts out as small, dense, hard beads. Using heat and steam, these beads are softened and expanded, eventually growing larger and, as a result, less dense. In fact, if you look at a piece of polystyrene foam, you may actually be able to see these beads. 

styrofoam beads

Like other plastics, polystyrene can be heated and molded, shaped, or extruded into a variety of different shapes and sizes. Once cooled, polystyrene has several light, expanded cells, and serves as an excellent insulator and shock absorber. A reason why it’s commonly used in disposable food and beverage packaging, coolers, and bicycle helmets.

How Many Styrofoam Coffee Cups are Produced Every Year?

Polystyrene has been around since the 1930s, and first made its way into coffee cups around the 1960s. Although foam cups haven’t been around long, they’ve already earned a bad reputation.

It’s estimated that in the United States, more than three million tons of polystyrene are produced every year. This translates to 25 billion polystyrene cups being thrown away annually. 

When compared to other waste products, polystyrene takes first place for being associated with most litter. In fact, the material accounts for 30% of landfill mass globally. In the U.S. alone, roughly 1,369 tons of polystyrene ends up in landfills every single day. 

Fortunately, this is changing as big companies which are some of the biggest users, have begun to phase the material out. In 2018, McDonalds started to ditch polystyrene foam, after agreeing to phase it out of sandwich packaging decades earlier in 1990. By 2020, Dunkin Donuts was also free from polystyrene, using paper cups instead. 

Are Styrofoam Cups Recyclable?

polystyrene plastic number 6

Styrofoam is a type of plastic, so are styrofoam coffee cups recyclable?

In theory, they most certainly can be recycled. However, the cases in which this actually happens are extremely rare. In fact, we’d be hard-pressed to find a municipal polystyrene recycling center. 

Unfortunately, the recycling process for Styrofoam is difficult, inconvenient, and expensive. It’s estimated a recycling program could spend about $1,000 to recycle Styrofoam and end up with only $200 of materials. Even then, recycled Styrofoam can rarely be transformed into something useful though it can be used as a construction material. 

The reason Styrofoam is so difficult to recycle is also partly why it can’t be composted, either. When compared with other plastics, polystyrene is more resistant to photolysis, or decomposition as a result of the action of light. A styrofoam coffee cup can take up to 500 years to decompose, leaching harmful chemicals as it does.

Like all plastics, the biggest concern with Styrofoam is that it persists in our environment for a very long time. Worse, the composition of Styrofoam breaks down into tiny little beads. These individual tiny beads can be mistaken as food and consumed by marine and aquatic species.

styrofoam beach litter

Other Considerations to Make Before Using Styrofoam

When it comes to the styrofoam versus paper cups debate, health is another important factor to consider. During the manufacturing process, more than 50 chemical byproducts are released when producing Styrofoam. The most serious of which is styrene, which is considered to be a possible human carcinogen.

This chemical compound isn’t just released during manufacturing. Styrene can also leach out of foam food and drink containers, especially when exposed to heat. It’s generally considered safer for use with cold beverages, but it’s recommended to steer clear of styrofoam coffee cups. 

This, along with the serious environmental concerns, is why areas around the world have begun banning the commercial use of Styrofoam. In the U.S., many states and cities, like California, New York, Vermont, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland have banned Styrofoam. Abroad, Some regions in the Philippines, India, China, Canada, France, and Taiwan have done the same.  

Alternatives to Styrofoam Cups

It’s unlikely we’ll be able to totally ditch disposable coffee cups as many of us are on the go. Fortunately, instead of throw-away coffee cups that are bad for the planet, there are eco-friendly biodegradable paper coffee cups. And there are also fiber and paper products that can replace foam or plastic food packaging.

A latte can still be steamy, thanks to insulated hot cups that are certified compostable and use air pockets. Kraft hot cups are made from 100% rapidly renewable sugarcane fiber, instead of fossil fuels. This makes them capable of containing liquids up to 220℉ but doesn’t require 500+ years for the cup to decompose.

styrofoam cup alternatives

Final Thoughts on the Threats of Styrofoam

There’s no doubt that Styrofoam has served several purposes affordably but at a huge cost to the environment. 

Fortunately, we now live in an era where keeping coffee hot and our planet healthy is far easier. We can all do our part by making a switch to alternatives to styrofoam coffee cups

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