Maryland consumers may soon be deprived of one of my favorite products: plastic foam coffee cups. The Maryland House of Delegates has already passed a bill that would ban all containers made with polystyrene foam, which—if eventually signed by Gov. Larry Hogan—would be the first statewide foam container ban. But that move will likely do more environmental harm than good, despite claims to the contrary.
First, people need to remember why foam products gained a large share of the cup and container market. It’s not just convenience and performance, it’s price. And a product’s price reflects the amount of resources needed to make a product as well as the cost to dispose of it.
It’s worth noting, however, that sometimes the cost of disposal is distorted because of the way governments handle solid waste, making political rather than economic decisions. More often than not, governments will expend limited tax dollars on recycling programs that actually increase resource use, which is a shame. A market in which landfilling, recycling, and incineration compete as disposal options would eliminate such distortions.
Nonetheless, both market performance and research studies comparing the lifecycle of foam containers reveals that they are superior in many ways to their competition in terms of performance, energy use, and disposal. The only reason consumers often can’t get their hands on them is misinformation, which leads to market deselection and government bans.
It’s easy to see why foam cups became so popular in the first place. Composed of 98 percent air, foam is lightweight, affordable to make, keeps coffee and food warm, and caps fit tight on cups, preventing leakage. Alternative paper cups don’t keep your coffee warm as long, require a cardboard sleeve to prevent your hands form burning (increasing their price), let your coffee get cold much quicker, tend to leak, and are often more expensive even without the sleeve.
The low price of foam cups reflects low resource usage in their production, which is an environmental advantage. It’s also easier for trucking employees and others to load and offload boxes of foam containers (reducing potential injuries), and lighter products reduce fuel usage and transportation costs.
A classic lifecycle study conducted by University of Victoria professor of chemistry Martin B. Hocking documented the extent of foam’s low-energy profile. Hocking calculated the number of “uses necessary before the reusable cup …becomes equally energy efficient,” as foam and paper. Compared to foam, ceramic cups require 1,008 uses, and for paper, it’s just 39 ceramic cup uses.
That means, if a person relied on a reusable ceramic cup for one coffee drink every day, it would take about 2.7 years for that cup to be as energy efficiency as using a different foam cup every day. The energy benefits of a paper cup could be beat after just over a month. “[I]n situations where cups are likely to be lost or broken and thus have a short average lifetime, disposable cups are the preferred option,” the study concludes.
Granted, there may be plastic reusable alternatives that would require less energy to make, but they still require energy and water to wash, and people need to remember to bring them.
Similarly, the research group Franklin Associates released findings from its life-cycle assessment of polystyrene packaging and alternative paper products in February 2011. It found that the average 16-ounce polystyrene cup uses a third less energy, produces 50 percent less solid waste by volume, and releases a third less of greenhouse gases than does a 16-ounce paper cup with a sleeve. Over their life cycles, polystyrene packaging products require 20 to 30 percent less water than do paper alternatives.
If people still choose to use paper, that’s fine too. The key point here is that foam cups have obvious benefits—both in terms of convenience and environmental profile—that should not be dismissed. Assuming that they are worse in all cases is just plain wrong.
Still, a key complaint about foam cups is that these products are not easy to recycle, but neither are paper cup alternatives. Both present challenges when it comes to recycling, but that doesn’t necessarily matter because the assumption that recycling always makes sense is also wrong. In many cases, recycling requires more energy and water and will release more pollution than not recycling. And that’s true for many materials from paper to plastic to glass. That’s because not only do recyclables need to be collected and sorted, they need to be washed and processed—all of which requires a lot of energy, water, and labor. Accordingly, it makes sense to send some stuff to a sanitary landfill where they can be safely disposed.
Landfills offer a safe and efficient solution, and the level of biodegradability of products going into landfills does not matter much. That’s because degradation in landfills is limited, and much of the waste is mummified. Some waste very slowly degrades, and any resulting liquid is drained out for safety purposes and the landfills are vented to release any resulting gases, which can be harnessed and used. Apparently, technology is improving for using the gas, but it does not matter that some waste remains. And despite claims to the contrary, we are not running out of landfill space, and at current waste production rates, we won’t run out of space even over thousands of years.
Litter is an issue on land and in the ocean, but it’s an issue with all types of products, and banning some products and replacing them with others isn’t much of a solution to anything. Moreover, the overwhelming source of ocean pollution is from poor disposal practices overseas, so banning foam cups in Maryland isn’t going to solve much.
And like foam cups, paper cups must be able to contain water, which means they are lined with a plastic film, limiting their biodegradability. So, the answer for both products is the same: make sure you dispose of them properly. Private anti-litter campaigns and cleanup programs offer a solution as well.
Finally, some people call for banning foam cups because the the National Toxicology Program listed styrene—the chemical used to make them—as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in 2011. But as Richard Belzer well documented in a study for CEI, the NTP isn’t particularly scientific. Both its criteria and terminology for classifications are purely subjective, lacking scientific meaning. Unfortunately, it may take a long time—if ever—for NTP to revise this classification. Consider that it took nearly 30 years for NTP to remove the harmless sugar substitute, i.e., saccharine, from its list of carcinogens. Somehow saccharine survived and remains on the market today.
A study issued by Gradient Corp. explains why the of the NPT listing makes no sense. Gradient researchers found:
The epidemiology studies show no consistent increased incidence of, or mortality from, any type of cancer. In animal studies, increased incidence rates of mostly benign tumors have been observed only in certain strains of one species (mice) and at one tissue site (lung). The lack of concordance of tumor incidence and tumor type among animals (even within the same species) and humans indicates that there has been no particular cancer consistently observed among all available studies. The only plausible mechanism for styrene-induced carcinogenesis–a non-genotoxic mode of action that is specific to the mouse lung–is not relevant to humans. As a whole, the evidence does not support the characterization of styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” and styrene should not be listed in the Report on Carcinogens.
The only good thing about Maryland’s potential polystyrene bans is it’s not yet law. We can only hope that reason and science will prevail, and the governor will reject it.