The Dart container company has made a valiant attempt at convincing us that its products are “greener” than we think. One of these containers, a 12 oz polystyrene cup, is adorned with the redeeming statement that, “An average weight paper hot cup generates about 181% more solid waste by weight than a comparable foam cup.”
They’re right, but in making this noble environmentally conscious statement, they fail to include several other key factors involved in the decomposition of Styrofoam and/or paper products. Most of the matter in a Styrofoam molecule is air, so its actual material composition is negligible in comparison to a paper product. If Styrofoam is compressed before being taken to a landfill, it will, indeed, comprise less solid waste than will paper. Dart is also quick to encourage us to recycle our Styrofoam containers; thereby vastly reducing the waste generated by these containers.
Let’s take a step back from this claim. Paper, on one hand, is a wood product. Styrofoam is a petroleum product. Paper comes from forests, indeed, but logging can arguably be done in a sustainable manner. Whereas companies have the opportunity to replant trees, replenishing oil supplies is not so easy. If left in dry conditions, polystyrene containers can “mummify” and last decades before decomposing. Paper can also be shredded and thrown in compost or a worm bin, as opposed to just sitting in a landfill.
Dart is quick to argue that Styrofoam can be recycled, but according to Eureka! recycling’s website, the options for re-using polystyrene are limited. While peanuts can be reused in shipping and packaging, and large blocks of Styrofoam can be compressed and recycled, there are much fewer options for recycling the actual cups.
The bottom line? Perhaps the Federal Trade Commission regulations on environmental advertising are not being enforced as well as we’d like them to be. One of the regulations requires that the statement “should be presented in a manner that makes the basis for the comparison sufficiently clear to avoid consumer deception.” When our options for sustainable sourcing and recycling for polystyrene products are very limited, there is clearly a form of greenwashing taking place.
How do we avoid getting sucked into myths like environmentally friendly Styrofoam drinking cups? Reusable containers. One major U.S. coffee seller that uses Styrofoam claims to sell 1 billion cups of coffee a year, which averages to around 2.7 million cups a day. All of those cups can be wrapped around the earth a full 2 times. Even if they’re compressed to 1/4 their size, that’s still 12,450.76 miles worth of Styrofoam waste.