Foam or Paper? An Unbiased Comparison

Foam Vs. PaperWith a wealth of information available that argues both sides, the decision between using polystyrene foam or wax-lined paper disposables is not an easy choice. The paper industries and environmentalists argue that polystyrene foam is non-biodegradable, non-recyclable, and toxic in the landfill. Foam manufacturers argue that, since foam is 90% air, its effect on landfills is minimal and requires less energy to produce than wax-lined paper. To respond to both arguments, unbiased, we at RJ Schinner have put together an FAQ sheet to aid your customers in making a choice that works for them.

Q. Paper is Recyclable… So Paper Cups are Better, Right?

A. Paper itself is recyclable, but most cups used for foodservice purposes are wax or polyethylene-coated to allow them to hold liquids, often making them unable to be recycled. Foam cups are recyclable in certain areas, which can be searched on Earth911.com. Dart, a popular manufacturer of polystyrene foam products, also offers recycling services at their regional plants. Both types of cups can be re-purposed, but as of now, recycling of paper cups is next to impossible and foam cup recycling is still limited (though places that do recycle polystyrene foam are able to turn it into things like picture frames, packaging materials, and many other household goods.)

Q. Do Foam Cups Really Never Biodegrade?

A. True- polystyrene foam is not biodegradable. However, in modern landfills, biodegradability is seldom the intent. Waste is buried in the landfill, cutting it off from oxygen and moisture which inhibits the material’s ability to breakdown into the soil, rendering polystyrene foam as harmless to the Earth as a rock. Wax-lined paper cups will indeed breakdown, but due to their coating, they do not breakdown in a meaningful way.

Q. How Much of America’s Municipal Waste is Attributed to Foam and Paper Cups?

A. Polystyrene and polystyrene foam cups account for less than 1% of municipal solid waste by weight and volume. In general, plastics account for about 11% of municipal waste, while paper accounts for about 38%.  According to a study done by Franklin Associates, LLC, “A representative-weight wax-coated paperboard cold beverage cup produces
almost five times as much total waste by weight as an average-weight polystyrene cold beverage cup,” and “an average-weight polyethylene (PE) plastic coated paperboard hot beverage cup with a corrugated cup sleeve produces almost five
times as much total waste by weight as an average-weight polystyrene hot beverage cup.”

Q. Isn’t Polystyrene Foam Toxic to Produce?

A.  According to an article from February 2011, “The production process used to make foam cups called “steam chest molding” is very low on power and water use. The production process to make paper cups is very high on power and water use. The raw material for foam cups is…a bi-product of the oil industry. Beads of polystyrene are placed into a mold and expanded using steam. Because of the large expansion that takes place it only takes a few beads and little energy to make the final product. The material content in foam cups is very low…as much as 95%, is air. It is the air that gives foam cups there remarkable insulation properties.

The raw material for paper cups is obvious and the paper manufacturing process is notoriously energy and water hungry and this is before the cup is made. Paper production for bleached paper from which most cups are made also produces dioxins which are highly toxic. I will say in defense of the paper production industry, it is moving away from older bleaching processes to non-toxic alternatives.”

Q. I Want My Company to be Sustainable- Which Cup Will Help Us Reach that Goal?

A. Unfortunately, since both cups use non-recycled materials, and are not readily recyclable, they both have their drawbacks. Some may argue that paper is a renewable resource, but the energy consumed to cut down and process the trees often exceeds the petroleum usage in producing polystyrene foam. A sustainable alternative that has been recently offered by RJ Schinner would be the Greenware line by Fabri-Kal, which features a 100% compostable composition since it is made of natural materials. RJ Schinner also carries recyclable PET plastic cold cups from GenPak.

As for the paper versus foam argument, while there is evidence to support and condemn each side, evidence shows that polystyrene foam is much less damaging to the environment than many myths may support.

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