Foam vs. Paper

December 18, 2013

Recently, polystyrene foam products have been scrutinized in the news. Cities across the United States have proposed various bans on foam foodservice products stating a variety of reasons such as filling up landfills, litter, and environmental issues. However, most of these claims are based on false information and common misconceptions. Get familiar with the facts by reading below:

Landfills

Foam foodservice products are not filling up landfills. In fact, foam foodservice items make up less than 1% by both weight and volume of landfill waste. Most consumers who purchase foam alternatives, like paper cups, are not aware that more paper cups end up in landfills than foam cups. Because landfills are designed to prevent biodegradation, few items biodegrade once they are entombed there.

Additionally, paper cup users often “double cup” when drinking hot beverages because paper does not insulate as well as foam. When using two cups together, a cardboard sleeve, or wrapping several napkins around the cup, significantly more solid waste is produced in comparison to using a single foam cup.

Litter

Litter is caused by overflowing trash bins, the lack of properly placed trash cans, and inconsiderate consumers who illegally dispose of their used items into the environment. Due to the visibility of litter, the public has formed a negative perception of foam products, wrongfully linking the material to the cause of litter. Unfortunately, people are less aware of the positive attributes of foam such as its recyclability.

While some cities have implemented bans on foam, they are not effective long-term solutions to manage litter or its related costs. In fact, there is no evidence indicating a decrease in litter-control expenses in cities that have already banned foam products.

As litter is not caused by a single material, a foam ban will not prevent people from littering other materials that are used in place of foam. Instead of banning a single material, cities should provide residents with more accessible trash and recycling bins and better educate residents on proper disposal techniques.

Environment Concerns

Foam can be produced and recycled in a simple process that is not damaging to the environment. Foam products are solely composed of air, polystyrene, and a blowing agent. They do not contain harmful chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons that contribute to ozone depletion.

In comparison to alternatives like paper products, foam products are a good choice based on environmental considerations.

Foam items consume less energy than paper containers, have lower atmospheric emissions, and contribute less to waterborne wastes than bleached paper products.  In addition, research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has not found a distinct connection between foam food containers and damage to marine life.