Facts About Styrofoam Cups

Written by rebecca mecomber
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Facts About Styrofoam Cups
The styrofoam cup doesn't actually exist. (coffee cup image by Leticia Wilson from Fotolia.com)

The “styrofoam” cup is the ubiquitous staple in homes and offices all across the United States. With it, we sip our morning coffee, enjoy our afternoon soups, and quench our thirst at picnics and ball games. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away more than 25 billion “styrofoam” cups very year. Foam cups presumably clog our landfills and poison our environment. Find out the facts about “styrofoam” cups.

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Invention of styrofoam

Styrofoam is the trademarked name of the polystyrene product developed and marketed by the Dow Chemical Co. In 1941, Dow scientists invented the method for extruding polystyrene and trademarked it as STYROFOAM™. Styrofoam was initially used by the U.S. Coast Guard for rafts, due to the buoyant and insulating qualities of styrofoam. Dow scientist John Grebe invented expanded polystyrene, a lesser-quality polystyrene product commonly used for coffee cups, coolers and packing peanuts.

The Myth of the styrofoam Cup

Dow Chemical Co. makes a clear distinction between their true, trademarked styrofoam product, which is the extruded polystyrene, and the disposable foam expanded polystyrene used for coffee cups. True styrofoam is either blue, white or green in colour, used as insulation and for craft materials. Foam coffee cups, packaging products and egg cartons are made of foam polystyrene beads or sheets; this material is inferior to the Dow-manufactured styrofoam product. According to Dow, “there is no such thing” as a styrofoam cup!

Composition

The styrofoam cup, or more accurately, the “polystyrene foam cup,” is 95 per cent air. The remaining 5 per cent of material consists of polystyrene, developed from the basic synthetic chemical, styrene. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, styrene is a “suspected carcinogen and is also a suspected toxin to the gastrointestinal, kidney, and respiratory systems, among others.” However, studies on the toxicity of the foam cup are inconclusive, especially since styrene is a substance found in nature.

Effects on the Environment

Polystyrene foam cups are non-biodegradable. However, due to their composition (most of the volume of the cup is air), the cups retain a high compression rate and therefore a minimal volume in landfills--less than 1 per cent in volume and weight, according to the American Chemical Council. Moreover, 50 per cent less energy is consumed in the production of a foam cup compared to a paper cup of the same size. While few recycling plants exist to recycle foam cups, the American Chemical Council claims that recycled polystyrene is an “emerging market.”

The Future

Due to the controversy of the toxicity of styrene and the permanency of foam cups in the landfills, companies are searching for innovative ways to combine the convenience of the disposable foam cup without the trouble of disposal. Food-grade carbon dioxide added to the moulding process is one such development. The increasing concern with the non-biodegradable nature of foam cups also showcases the need for further developments into an affordable and efficient method of recycling the material.

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