By Joey Papa on March 23, 2010

When comparing paper and Styrofoam cups, the eco-friendliest may surprise you.

If you are like me, you would guess a paper cup is much more eco-friendly then its evil step sibling, the Styrofoam cup. However, in many cases, a Styrofoam cup is the greener option. Most people instantly think paper is more eco-conscious because it is recyclable, but truth be told, most paper cups intended for hot beverages are not recyclable. Here is a quick overview of the two contenders.

Insulation

It is obvious a Styrofoam cup insulates much better than paper. Just fill up both cups with hot liquid and hold them in your hands. The Styrofoam cup will be cool to touch, while the paper cup radiates the hot liquid inside the cup. The solution to the paper cup problem? Add more paper. Paper cup users are slipping on cardboard sleeves to help hold the paper cup without being burnt. The most common place this phenomenon has become the norm is in coffee shops. While most hot-cup sleeves are made from recycled materials and are recyclable, it is still an added item to a simple Styrofoam cup.

Eco-friendly

If you’re concerned with making the eco-friendly choice between the two, Styrofoam wins on many fronts. Unless you’re using a paper cup that is biodegradable (most are not), there are some aspects to consider. A standard paper cup takes more than 20 years to decompose in a landfill environment. This is mostly due to the wax lining on the inside of the cup. The trendy paper cup also takes more energy, raw material and money to make. For example, in comparison to Styrofoam, a paper cup requires 12 times the amount of water, 36 times the amount of electricity and costs double the amount of money to produce. Shocking, I know.

Styrofoam vs Plastic

Speaking of cost, the typical paper cup costs around two-and-a-half times the amount of a Styrofoam cup. Aside from the production of the cup, if you add the cardboard sleeve and its production, raw material, energy and shipping needs, you need to throw in an additional 2-3 cents per cup. Modifying or customizing a Styrofoam cup is nearly half the price of customizing a paper cup. The bottom line is that paper cups are more than double the price to produce and require a cardboard sleeve if you want to save your fingertips.

When it boils down, it appears that going with Styrofoam is more eco-friendly compared to a paper cup. There are better ways to drink your hot beverages, such as using a reusable tumbler, coffee mug or other container you wash and use over and over. If you have to use a disposable paper cup, find out if the establishment you are buying your drink from uses biodegradable cups. If they do, that is the way to go. As the cup industry moves away from the traditional method of manufacturing the current unrecyclable paper cup into a more biodegradable version, the battle between Styrofoam and paper cups may take a turn. In a scenario where the paper cup is biodegradable, a paper cup may win.

About the author

Joey Papa is a freelance writer in Tampa, FL, where he lives with his wife and son and daughter. Writing is more than a job for Joey; it's a way to express his [...]
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