Wait a Sec, Are Foam Cups Actually Better for the Environment than Paper?

published Oct 11, 2017
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Foam cups have long been considered some of the worst things for the environment, and many establishments have swapped out their foam cups for paper instead. But is it actually helping?

A few months ago, Reddit user Linz_mmb, who used to own a styrofoam recycling business, commented on a post about Dunkin Donuts’ use of foam cups to point out that foam isn’t all that bad, and, well… if it’s all true, it’s surprising. You can read the full comment below.

“Despite the negative stereotypes, foam cups have a lower carbon footprint than paper cups and in some cases they might have a lower carbon footprint than reusable cups,” they wrote, noting that some Dunkin Donuts locations actually have an in-store foam cup recycling program. And according to their comment, paper cups are actually harder to recycle because of the glue and wax coating needed to hold them together and keep liquids from leaking through. Not to mention, foam cups apparently require less material to make.

So, here’s the real question: is it true?

According to HuffPost, paper cups are actually more difficult to recycle than foam (made from polystyrene, not Styrofoam, which is a brand name for foam used for insulation) cups, because of the wax lining inside, and paper cups do produce more waste and require more energy and materials to make, so Linz_mmb isn’t wrong.

A study published in the Wall Street Journal even found that people are slightly more likely to recycle foam containers: 16 percent of foam food service containers are recycled in major American cities, compared to 12 percent of paper containers. Plus, when you use a foam cup, you only use one—people are more likely to double up on paper cups because they’re less insulated, making even more waste in the end.

Articles in NY Magazine and the Boston Globe also back up these claims, although not necessarily that foam cups are vastly better. In the end, NY Magazine points out that neither foam nor paper are particularly green options and they’re both likely ending up in a landfill regardless. But the truth is, the push that’s been happening over the past few years to switch to paper cups isn’t doing all that much for the environment, and in some cases, it could be making things worse.

In any case, if you have to use disposable cups, you might want to consider making the switch to foam cups—just make sure you recycle them.