Styrofoam cups get a bad rap, and other surprising environmental revelations

Styrofoam cups actually use less energy than reusable ceramic ones.
Styrofoam cups actually use less energy than reusable ceramic ones.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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A few decades ago, it was pretty easy to feel eco-friendly. All you had to do was avoid being a litter bug—and maybe commit to saving a whale or two.

But as we’ve come to understand more about climate change, species loss, and other environmental issues, our options have become a lot harder to parse. We may think the most environmentally friendly choice is to buy organic produce or take a biodegradable paper bag over a plastic one. But when you consider issues of efficient land use or the energy required to produce a plastic bag, research has shown that the truth is often more complicated. Indeed, a broad look at environmental research on the lifecycle of products–including how they are manufactured, used, and disposed of or recycled–produces some surprising results.

At least one familiar theory still holds water: It’s more costly to use paper plates and plastic utensils. Instead, use hot water to clean and reuse kitchen plates and flatware after every use.

All those college students toting around Nalgene bottles are also onto something. Even after accounting for the energy necessary to wash the bottle after every use, reusable bottles use less energy and produce fewer emissions than disposable plastic ones.

You might find it surprising to learn, however, that the much-hated Styrofoam cup is not quite as bad as we thought. Yes, these cups take forever to decompose and thus take up space in landfills. But drinking your daily cup of coffee out of a Styrofoam cup uses less energy than drinking out of a ceramic cup and washing it in hot water after each use—unless your ceramic cup lasts for 1,000 uses and you wash it only after every third use. It’s also environmentally smarter to choose fresh-squeezed orange juice over the frozen concentrated kind, use cloth kitchen towels instead of paper towels, and pick Kleenex over handkerchiefs.

Studies of the social costs of recycling are perhaps the most surprising. If your waste is comprised of metal and paper, go ahead and recycle it. But you’d be better off placing your glass and plastic in the garbage. Recycling glass and plastic uses up a lot of energy and labor: these materials get shipped as far as China for recycling, where unskilled workers will spend their days sorting it. Throwing the bottle away, by contrast, typically requires a truck to travel just 20 miles or so to the local landfill.

While this research can be helpful, there’s a problem: Who can remember all of this stuff? And what difference will it make if only a few of us stick to these guidelines, while everyone else keeps recycling seltzer bottles as they please?

The solution may lie in environmental taxes, which would use prices to signal information about the amount of air pollution, pesticides or water contamination associated with the production of a tomato or a can of coffee beans. The lowest prices would reflect the best environmental choices—a great set-up for bargain hunters.

Right now, environmental taxes are largely the stuff of textbooks. But recent discussions about a possible carbon tax in the US, which would require people to pay more money according to the amount of carbon they emit, suggest the country might be ready to accept this approach. Until that day, the very least you can do is stop buying Smartwater.