Friday, July 6, 2012

Paper, Polystyrene or Plastic Cups?


Edited and compiled by Wong Ee Lynn

There is a lot of debate over whether paper cups are preferable to polystyrene cups from an environmental point of view. Due to consumer pressure, many fast food and snack food franchises have even switched to paper or cardboard cups. The question is, however, whether paper is really better for the environment than polystyrene cups.

The 3 main choices for disposable cups are paper, polystyrene and PET plastic.

PAPER is the most expensive choice, and despite popular belief, not all paper cups are biodegradable. Many are lined with wax or petrochemical products to waterproof them. Paper production can cause almost twice as much CO2 emissions and energy consumption as creating plastic or polystyrene products. Some paper cups are also not recyclable if they have a wax coating on them. Producing paper cups can also take more material by weight to produce for proper insulation, compared to polystyrene and plastic cups.

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.

POLYSTYRENE cups are lightweight and cheap, and can insulate very well but they can degrade or break into smaller pieces that becomes a hazard to the environment and animals. Styrofoam is created from benzene and other chemicals that contribute to smog and global warming. Polystyrene products are not biodegradable and neither practical nor economical to recycle. Polystyrene has been found to break down in oceans, but only into more toxic polymers, where they eventually end up in the food chain of sea birds and marine animals. Researchers from Japan collected water samples from seas in US, Japan, Europe and India, and found that all the water samples were found to contain derivatives of polystyrene, plastics and BPA.

PLASTIC cups seem to be the most environmentally-friendly option as most plastic cups are recyclable, washable and reusable. Plastic is also a much lighter material so there is less transportation and fuel costs needed. Plastic cups are the cheapest to produce and purchase, but the soft versions could not be used for hot drinks.

Now that researchers have found the shockingly large environmental impact of paper cups, what are the choices available to us?

1. Reusable cups are, of course, the preferred choice as the cups will be used many times over, thus reducing the resources needed to make them. They may require water and soap for washing, but this is minimal. Don't forget that disposable cups use a lot of water and chemicals in the manufacturing process as well.

2. If you are entertaining at home, it makes environmental and economic sense to invest in a set of washable, reusable cups. You can lend them out during potlucks, or conversely, borrow a set from friends, thus reducing the need to buy, store and keep track of so many material possessions.

3. Bring your own drinking water and beverages with you when you are outside your home. Politely decline disposable cups and bottled water, and ask for your drink to be served in your own mug, cup or flask when appropriate. Many service staff in restaurants and stalls are only to happy to comply with your request. Starbucks and several other coffee franchises have their own range of "personal reusable tumblers" which they encourage customers to bring and utilise, so if you are a regular patron of coffee franchises, find out if you have the option of bringing and using your own reusable tumbler or mug.

4. If you have no choice but to accept a disposable cup, go for a recyclable plastic cup. Try to reuse or recycle the disposable cups you have acquired. Rinse out and bring home your cups for reuse as pen caddies, planters, paintbrush holders, and yes, drinking cups, before you consign them to the recycling or garbage bin.

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