Coffee. It’s a devotion to some and necessity to most. If you’re grabbing a cup at the office or at your favorite coffee shop, you may want to take a moment and think about what you’re really drinking out of. Most likely it’s a single use paper or Styrofoam cup. And where will it go after you’re finished? Now more than ever, people are paying attention to wasteful habits that are filling landfills and depending on what kind of single-use cup you are using you could be contributing to the problem rather than making a difference. So, what do you think is better, paper or Styrofoam?
It would be a safe bet that most folks argue paper cups are more ecofriendly than Styrofoam. Why? Well, when you think of paper, you think natural, biodegradable and recyclable. But, there is more to the standard paper cup than you think. In most cases paper cups are not compostable. This is due to plastic (polyethylene) and/or wax lining inside the cup. You typically wouldn’t think of wax as a harmful additive, but paper cups typically use paraffin wax which is a by-product of petroleum and drastically inhibits biodegradability. Some studies have found that it can take over 20 years to biodegrade a paper cup of this kind. Wax coated paper is considered a mixed paper, and cannot be recycled. This is certainly something to consider since paper cups are usually the most common. On the flip side, paper is made from wood which is a renewable resource and there are manufacturers out there who make cups that are truly both compostable and recyclable.
Styrofoam, or by its technical name “foamed polystyrene”, has both benefits and disadvantages too. It became popular because it is cheaper both to produce and purchase, lightweight, and has great insulation properties, like keeping your coffee hot but not burning your fingers while holding the cup. But polystyrene is a petroleum based plastic which means it comes from a non-renewable source. Its component, styrene, is classified as a possible human carcinogen by both the EPA and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). If subjected to high heat, small amounts of styrene leach out. That means you could be drinking more than just a hot cup of coffee. Styrofoam is also unable to be recycled using the traditional methods that are currently in use and appears to last forever, as it is resistant to photolysis, the breaking down of compounds by photons.
So, which is best?
Ultimately, everyone will have their decision for using either Styrofoam or paper cups but true compostable and recyclable paper cups are undoubtedly a better choice for the environment. But, we can take things a step further by simply reducing the amount we use. And this doesn’t mean lowering your coffee intake. You can do this by incorporating reusable stainless steel or ceramic mugs or travel tumblers into your coffee repertoire. It may seem different at first, but you would be surprised with how many people are already doing it. Many coffee shop chains sell their own branded reusable mugs and are more than happy to fill them with your favorite coffee.
If everybody does their part to cut back on single use cups we are all helping to make the world a greener place.