Styrofoam vs Paper products

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StaffAASHE Member
Joined: Dec 16 2008
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Waste Management

Our school is considering abolishing Styrofoam, but the CFO would like some research to back up the substantial cost difference between the two products. Some of the info I have obtained from cursory searches I have performed seems to indicate that neither product really breaks down, and it costs much more in terms of fossil fuels and therefore carbon footprints to manufacture the paper. Just wondering if you have any info you can share on the subject?

Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,

Jenny

 

Jennifer Sanderson, OD
Assistant Professor
Southern College of Optometry

pmoody@stlcc.edu's picture
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Joined: Dec 23 2008

Hi Jennifer,
We are going for compostable dining ware--tho it is more expensive, our auxiliary services has had a profit and offered to supplement the cost. One challenge we faced was the food service company measured their food servings by styrofoam clam shells rather than scoops etc. They didn't want to change. Our other challenge is to get a districtwide composting program that would handle these containers. If put into the trash, they break down more quickly, but with anaerobic conditions for most landfills, even compostable don't break down (thus the carbon challenge again).
Peggy
 

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Joined: Dec 23 2008

 Jennifer -

I think Styrofoam and all styrene products are very harmful products.  From manufacturing to eventual disposal, the process is full of health risks. These products are used in high volumes—an estimated 25 billion Styrofoam cups are discarded each year—and the environmental and health impacts are enormous. A 1986 EPA report named polystyrene manufacturing as the fifth-largest creator of hazardous waste. In addition, styrene and Styrofoam products are often discarded as litter, and it is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems, and it is a significant ingredient in the ‘great pacific garbage patch’, a gyre—now twice as big as the state of Texas—of toxic plastic refuse that has been reduced to small particles and enters the food chain after it is consumed by marine animals. 

Food service products made from paper are often coated with a thin plastic layer that keeps them from being composted or even biodegrading in a landfill. Even if you avoid this problem, it is still a single-use product with lots of embedded energy and resources.

The new compostable products are a big improvement, but only if they are composted -- if they go to the landfill, they take decades or centuries to break down. Also, they take food crops and turn them into throwaway products.

In my opinion, the only really satisfactory solution is reusable products.  Even in food court situations where much of the food is taken out, local colleges and universities have implemented reusable takeout containers and encourage students to use reusable mugs and water bottles for beverages.  In one case, dining services has even offered ceramic dishes and other reusable products to fraternities & sororities to encourage them to eliminate Styrofoam and single-use products.  The savings really are impressive, even when you take the dishwashing into account!   The only person who should need a single-use product is a one-time customer who will not be returning!

Reusable is, in my opinion, the only way to go. 

Peace,
Peter

 

Peter Crownfield 
  Campus Sustainability Initiative
Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley
Bethlehem, PA  18015 
<www.sustainlv.org>
<peter@sustainlv.org> 

 

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Joined: Aug 19 2010

Gator Dining at the University of Florida operated by ARAMARK has successfully removed all styrofoam products from all campus dining venues. We replaced the products made of polystryene foam from national brands such as Chick-Fil-A, Burger King, Panda Express, Jamba Juice, Pollo Tropical and more and replaced it with paper based compostable and or recyclable products. This alone will divert an estimated 1.2 million units of polystryene packaging a year from campus.

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Joined: Feb 10 2012

Hi Peter,

My school has a successful composting program in place for our dining halls- but there is much food and packaging waste at our "to-go" locations. How would you suggest creating this social change so students will want to bring their reusable takeout container, mug, etc. for takeout dining? Are you aware of any good case studies of universities with sustainable fast food programs?

Best,
Jaclyn

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Joined: Jun 3 2010

Jaclyn -

I agree that the social change may be the hardest part about getting rid of single-use packaging, but that depends in part on how your dining services are run. Some food-service companies seem to prefer 'greenwashing' to real change.

The lowest level of change would be to ask each customer whether the order is to eat in or take out. Eat-in food should always be served on reusable serve ware, with reusable cups & utensils, and condiments should be supplied in bulk dispensers. Take-out food should in reusable containers & utensils, with a deposit charged to the student's account.

Unfortunately, I am not aware of any college or university that has really sustainable take out options. Several of the schools here in the Lehigh Valley [PA] offer reusable take-out containers for students who sign up for them, but there doesn't seem to be a real effort to promote their use or make alternatives difficult or more expensive. Translate this as the dining services doesn't consider it a priority.

Don't forget all the on-campus catering! Many food services use styrene plastic cups, plates, & utensils for this, when they could and should use china, glass, & stainless steel.

Does your university system or even your state system have strong waste-minimization policies? That might be a way to influence local behavior. Check out the policies at University of California, or even the requirements for state agencies here in PA. [I'll send you copies of these separately.]

Peace,
Peter

Peter Crownfield
* Campus Sustainability Initiative*
Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley
Bethlehem, PA 18015
<www.sustainlv.org>

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What about the studies showing that it takes far less energy to make a polystyrene cup than ceramic? You'd have to use a ceramic cup at least 500 times to equal the amount of energy used, according to a much-referenced 1994 study by a chemist at the University of Victoria. This is the argument made by the Facilities and Food Service directors at my school. I think we need to consider the up- and downstream health impacts as well, of course, and studies that consider additional material inputs (like this one: http://citizenbean.blogspot.com/2006/09/ask-pablo-coffee-mug-debacle.html), but the energy argument is tough to counter. I'd love to get some more "ammunition" against polystyrene because it supports the petroleum-based, throwaway culture that we're trying to end. Any thoughts?

alentini@uga.edu's picture
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Hi- Here are the two posts that talk about both sides to the energy debate:

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2008/...

http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/styrofoam-never-beats...

Unless I am just not seeing it (and that's likely) when they talk about having to use the ceramic cup 70x longer to make the energy amount of styrofoam they always leave out that in order to use the ceramic mug 70 times (or one cup each morning for 70 days) you would need to use 70 styrofoam mugs too. Nobody is washing out styrofoam. So if they are really trying to compare it they would need to look at life cycle energy costs rather than just single-use energy costs. A single use product is almost always going to win out against a reusable product for a one-time use. But if the argument is really about an ongoing process they shouldn't limit the math.

OR they should follow their beliefs all the way. Why would they furnish their offices with nice furniture rather than particle board? Why wouldn't they build buildings out of paper blocks? After all, those cheaper materials will make sense in terms of one-day operations, right?

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It's not uncommon for people to find a one-dimensional statistic that justifies their position. The only scientific study I've seen is quite old, but it did indicate that a ceramic mug would have to be used 500 times to equal the energy in a Styrofoam cup.

In reality, though, a 'normal' life cycle for a decent quality ceramic mug is estimated at around 3,000 uses, which would make it 6 times better than Styrofoam. Even in situations with an unusually-high breakage rate, it should be easy to exceed 500 uses -- and it will save the dining service money at the same time. [For take-out, they should require students & staff to bring their own reusable stainless-steel mugs or provide a use-and-return program in which they can participate.]

But is energy the only consideration? How about waste? Toxic pollution?

These products are used in high volumes—an estimated 25 billion Styrofoam cups are discarded each year—and the environmental and health impacts are enormous. The problem of single-use products is especially problematic when they are made of styrene or Styrofoam, which have serious up- and down-stream consequences. Even the normally-conservative EPA has said that styrene manufacturing is one of the most toxic industries, with very serious health impacts on workers.

In addition, styrene and Styrofoam products are often discarded as litter, and it is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems. They are a significant ingredient in the ‘great pacific garbage patch’, a gyre—now twice as big as the state of Texas—of toxic plastic refuse that has been reduced to small particles and enters the food chain after it is consumed by marine animals. Some of this even winds up in fish caught for human consumption!

I do not purchase beverages in single-use containers and have used the same mug for years. This has eliminated the need to manufacture and disposal of thousands of cups. Imagine if everyone on your campus did the same!