, Volume 15, Issue 6, pp 731-747

Relative merits of polystyrene foam and paper in hot drink cups: Implications for packaging

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Abstract

An analysis of the overall relative merits of the use of uncoated paper vs molded polystyrene bead foam in single-use 8-oz cups is described here as a manageable example of the use of paper vs plastics in packaging. In raw material requirements the paper cup required about 2.5 times its finished weight of raw wood and about the same hydrocarbon fueling requirement as is needed for the polystyrene foam cup. To process the raw materials about six times as much steam, 13 times as much electric power, and twice as much cooling water are consumed to produce the paper cup as compared to the polystyrene foam cup. Emission rates to air are similar and to water are generally higher for the paper cup.

Virtually all primary use factors favor polystyrene foam over paper. Once used both cup types may be recycled. Landfill disposal of the two items under dry conditions will occupy similar landfill volumes after compaction and will confer similarly slow to nonexistent decomposition to either option. Under wet conditions polystyrene foam will not readily degrade, but may help other materials to do so. Paper under wet conditions will biodegrade to produce methane, a significant greenhouse gas, biochemical oxygen demand to any leachate, and instability to the land surface during the process. Both materials can be incinerated cleanly in a municipal waste stream with the option of energy recovery, to yield an ash volume of 2%–5% of the incoming waste volume. Overall this analysis would suggest that polystyrene foam, with an extension to plastics in general, should be given more evenhanded consideration relative to paper in packaging applications than is currently the case.