One of the most obvious advantages polystyrene foam cups have over plastic-coated paper cups is that foam insulates better than paper. Paper cup users frequently use two cups together for hot beverages to protect their hands, use a cardboard sleeve, or wrap layers of napkins around the cup. “Double cupping” an average-weight polyethylene plastic-coated paperboard cup results in over twice as much solid waste by volume, over five times as much solid waste by weight, and nearly twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as the use of a single average-weight polystyrene cup.[i]
A soft drink in a foam cup will still have more carbonation in it after 15 minutes than the same drink in a paper cup after 2 minutes. A hot drink in a plastic-lined paper cup will have lost twice as much heat as the same drink in a foam cup after 10 minutes.
The environmental impact from the materials and energy used in making paper cups, as well as the emissions from incinerating or burying paper cups exceeds the impact of making and disposing of cups made of plastic foam.[ii]
All manufacturing processes have environmental consequences, just as all living creatures contribute, however minimally, to environmental degradation. The real answer on environmental impact comes from a comparative analysis with suitable alternative manufacturing processes.[iii]
Single service foodservice products were developed to minimize exposure to bacteria and other foodborne pathogens. Today, Americans generate less packaging waste per person now than they did two decades ago.
As one study concluded, “while these data do not prove that using disposables actually prevents foodborne illness, the fact that reusables have a statistically higher level of microbial contamination than disposables favors the presumption that single service offers a measure of protection that would be missed if solid waste considerations barred them from use.”[iv]
Patrons of fast food restaurants, households with young children, hospitals concerned about the spread of foodborne disease, and school cafeterias and other restaurants that cannot accommodate a lunch or dinner crowd with reusables alone attest to the need for an alternative to permanentware. Add to this consideration the energy, water, and detergents used to wash permanentware and it seems clear that single service products have their place in modern life. Many organizations, such as Meals on Wheels and local food trucks, rely on the convenience, insulation properties, and high level of sanitation afforded by polystyrene food packaging in providing healthy food to their clients.
[i] Franklin Associates, Ltd., Final Peer-Reviewed Report: Life Cycle Inventory of Polystyrene Foam, Bleached Paperboard, and Corrugated Paper Foodservice Products (Prepared for the Polystyrene Packaging Council, March 2006), pp. 2-7, 2-23, 2-43, 2-60
[ii] Naj, Amal Kumar. “Foam Cups Damage Environment Less Than Paper Cups, Study Says.” The Wall Street Journal. 1 February 1991. See also: Hocking, Martin B. “Is Paper Better Than Plastic?” Consumers’ Research October 1991: 28-29; Hocking, Martin B. “Reusable and Disposable Cups: An Energy-Based Evaluation.” 18 Environmental Management 6. 1994: 894; Franklin Associates, Ltd., Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Foam Polystyrene and Bleached Paperboard Containers. June 1990: 4-1–4-29; Budiansky, Stephen. “Being Green Isn’t Always What It Seems.” U.S. News and World Report. 26 August 1996: 42.
[iii] Franklin Associates, Ltd. , Final Peer-Reviewed Report: Life Cycle Inventory of Polystyrene Foam, Bleached Paperboard, and Corrugated Paper Foodservice Products (Prepared for the Polystyrene Packaging Council, March 2006), Table 2-2, p. 2-7, Table 2-3, p. 2-8.
[iv] Felix, Charles W., Chet Parrow, and Tanya Parrow, “Utensil Sanitation: A Microbiological Study of Disposables and Reusables.” Journal of Environmental Health September-October 1990: 15.