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Paper Cup vs. Styrofoam Cup: Which is the "Greener" Choice?

Quick, which is better for the environment: paper cups or styrofoam ones? If you chose paper (because of its biodegradibility), you'd be surprised at the answer.

Eco Joe tells us why styrofoam is actually the "greener" choice of the two. For example:

Paper Cups Don’t Biodegrade
Well, they do eventually (as does anything, eventually), but it takes much more time than I’d thought for a paper cup to biodegrade. The gubmint says, “Modern landfills are designed to inhibit degradation so that toxic wastes do not seep into the surrounding soil and groundwater. The paper cup will still be a paper cup 20 years from now.”

Paper Cups Use More Raw Materials and Energy Than Styrofoam (And Cost More)
This was a surprise to me:

“A study by Canadian scientist Martin Hocking shows that making a paper cup uses as much petroleum or natural gas as a polystyrene cup. Plus, the paper cup uses wood pulp. The Canadian study said, ‘The paper cup consumes 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity, and twice as much cooling water as the plastic cup.’ And because the paper cup uses more raw materials and energy, it also costs 2.5 times more than the plastic cup.”

Link (Photo: lilivanili [Flickr]) | Here's what Starbucks has to say about their paper cups: Link - via The Issue


Why is biodegration even an issue? Surely one should be thinking recycling instead of biodegration?

Though, there are innovative styrofoam materials that are biodegradable as well, they're making their way into packaging materials quite strongly. However, I don't know if they're strong enough for hot liquids.
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Styrofoam does not biodegrade at all. It degrades into smaller and smaller pieces over time, like rocks turning into sand, and finds its way into the food chain, where it begins to poison animals that eat it in error. There exists no bacterium currently capable of metabolising styrofoam or plastics, and it may be hundreds of thousands of years before one evolves. By which time, the planet will be choked with plastic and styrofoam.

Beware of plastics that advertise themselves as degradable. There are various kinds of bin liners, sandwich bags and freezer bags on the market and indeed they are just that. Merely degradable. All that means is that they break down into smaller pieces of plastic quicker than regular plastic, meaning that they poison smaller creatures more quickly than non-degradable plastics do. And when the plankton dies, we're all screwed.
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I thought this was common knowledge. Not only is styrofoam cheaper and greener to make, it works better too.

No need for that extra paper sleeve on your cup when using styrofoam.

Give me the better insulated, greener, cheaper choice any day.
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Or bring your own cup. But that would require actual responsibility.

and Willo - many of the products you mention are listed as degradable because they are water-soluble, meaning that they break down into individual polymer molecules, which, although they are much larger than, say, a water molecule, are still much too small to be mistaken for food. They are often made from starchy, plant-based polymers instead of petroleum-based polymers. Also, plastic-eating bacteria may be closer than you think:
http://ec.europa.eu/environment/etap/pdfs/oct06_plastic_degradation.pdf
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So a paper cup takes longer than is usually thought to biodegrade? So what? It's still less time than it takes a styrofoam cup to break down.

I guess it depends on what kind of world we want: one with more paper waste (which is from a renewable resource and can be recycled if we're not too lazy about it) or more styrofoam waste (which is unsightly at best, toxic at worst). If people used the sturdier styrofoam cups more than once, you'd have a different argument. But since they usually go straight to the landfill, that's another story.
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Paper yoghurt pots, which I assumed are very similar to paper coffee cups, break down within two years in our compost heap.

I crumple them up and throw them in along with the labels off tins, the cardboard slips on food packets, coffee grounds, mango stones, all uneaten food and peelings etc. Even meat, which you're not supposed to put on heaps works fine in the tiny quantities we ever leave.

What comes out of the bottom has no recognisable trace of paper cup.
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always check the source of these studies. i'm not taking the time to on this one, but i have researched this dillema before and the vast majority of data was coming from the styro companies, not 3rd parties.
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So a paper cup takes longer than is usually thought to biodegrade? So what? It’s still less time than it takes a styrofoam cup to break down.

I think the point is paper practically don't degrade in most landfill environment. A paper cup will still be a paper cup after buried in a landfill for decades... then what's the point of it being biodegradable at all?

The point of the Eco Joe article is that you have to consider the total impact of paper cup vs. styrofoam cup (from production energy cost to quantity used to finally, biodegradability).
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True, Alex. Garbage is packed so densely in landfills, there's no opportunity for any of it to biodegrade. The compost box is a different story because there's air in it.
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I am trying to make our company lunchroom "Go Green" We currently supply employees with Paper Plates, Styrofoam cups, and plastic utensils. I was looking for information to convince the staff that this change is better for all, yet I can't seem to find good information. Any direction would be appreciated like a link to a specific site!!
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(styro vs paper question) I have it from good sources that paper products that have been treated to be water and oil resistant are the more evil of the two, because when the treated paper product decomposes, it will impart dangerous toxins into the soil; whereas polystyrene is just ugly.
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Which is better for the environment use Paper or Polystyrene Products?

Obviously garbage is garbage - regardless if it's biodegradable/recyclable - or neither - it's all garbage and it's a problem and bad for the environment whether it seeps into our earth or just sits there and takes up space... it's bad either way.

So the next big thing to consider and look at (that should be just as a big priority)... is to decide which is healtheir for people?

Obviously, it has been proven and banned in some states to use... "styrofoam"/polyestrene products have harmful chemicals that seep into your liquids/foods regarding hot and cold items versus using paper isn't as harmful and doesn't mess with your thyroid or cause you more of a risk for cancer.

Do people want to be cheap and worry about the environment? Or do you care about your health?
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paper cups use more energy to be produced, leave more sludge (eventually waste) when recycled, and release methane when decomposing. i'm not going to argue which is better because if you know the facts, they're equally bad. the facts are the facts, and the debate will continue over which is greener
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Why are we not talking about personal responsibility, like bringing your own food container, cups, and silverware. There are plenty of choices out there from durable plastic covered food containers to stainless steel, many variety of reusable cups and take some silverware from your kitchen.
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Seriously, cutting down trees is a good thing?

Manufacturing paper products produces uses 2.5 to 7 times more energy than plastics, paper mills are historically some of the worst producers of toxic waste (look up Pigeon River and www.cwac.net/paper_industry/). It's even worse if you look at the respective recycling processes.

Biodegradable does not mean disappear. It means that the material breaks down. Into what? The biodegrading of paper in a landfill releases one of the worst greenhouse gases, Methane. Paper is not as clean as you think.

The solution is not which, but not to let it get to the landfill (or ocean) in the first place and recycle.
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Get a stainless steel insulated travel mug, just one of them, and use it for as long as you can.
Cups of coffee I drank in the last 2 years, probably around 1000.
Number of paper cups used - maybe 10.
Number of styrofoam cups - 1 (and it tasted awful).
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Are we talking STYROFOAM or PLASTIC? You started with one and went to the other, and the two are way different when it comes to biodegradability and chemical properties, no?
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Styrofoam takes 700 years to decompose, and paper cups take only 20 years. Paper cups may make more waste since there are coffee sleaves on them but guess what, you can recycle those. Styrofoam si cheaper to buy that's why it is promoted so much on the internet, that's why people will tell you it's better, but it's not. You have to truly think, is it worth the cost to kill our environment when you can recycle the paper cups. Styrofoam is recyclable but virtually no where has recycling plants for styrofoam.
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Quite stunning that how longs it takes to degrade is used against a paper cup, when, as others have commented. styrofoam doesn’t degrade at all, and what's worse, is when it doesn't end up in a landfill (to take up space for centuries), it breaks up into little pieces that remain in eco-sytems. That is what made me extremely suspicious of this report. Nor does it mention the resources used to obtain the petroleum used in the manufacture of styrofoam. Makes me wonder who is behind this website, and what industry influence and support it represents.

So pause and think about all those little bits of plastic, inside bird and fish and mammal stomachs, and once they die, then still staying in the dirt and water and hanging around for centuries after we’re gone. Or what happens when plastics are burned….There is no dilemma-styrofoam is a bad choice.
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