Photo credit: Ralph Hockens via Flickr/CC BY
The GOP's politically-motivated move to disband the Democrat's biodegradable packaging and composting program in the House of Representatives -- and replace said packaging with disposable Styrofoam -- drew quite a bit of attention last week. The petroleum-based, non-biodegradable relic of a material is such an easy target to hate on that the story found its way into mainstream news cycles. But today, a story in Slate raised an interesting proposition -- could Styrofoam actually be greener than reusable mugs?I think not. Slate's Jacob Leibenluft makes a hell of a case in favor of the disposable stuff, but I've got to respectfully disagree. The meat of Leibenluft's argument hinges on two factors -- that relying on reusable cups wastes more water than using Styrofoam, and that Styrofoam cups require less energy to make (and to use) than ceramic or stainless steel cups. Liebenluft does correctly point out that there's no comparison when it comes to landfill waste, though he neglects to mention the fate of the many Styrofoam cups that never make it that far, and end up in our oceans, lakes, roadsides, and, eventually, the groundwater. To me, that fact alone is enough to disqualify Styrofoam.
His other points are good ones, and very much worth taking into consideration. First, washing the mug. Leibenluft points out that when cleaning your coffee mug in a dishwasher, "each wash will require substantially more water than it takes to make a polystyrene or paper cup." But it seems to me that you can combat this water waste by eschewing the dishwasher cycle and just doing a quick rinse with just a splash, or less. Since you're drinking coffee made with boiling water, after all, you don't really have to be too concerned about lingering bacteria.
Then there's the question of energy consumption:
Pound-for-pound, petroleum-based polystyrene is a pretty bad material--it takes twice as much energy to produce a gram of polystyrene as it does to produce the same quantity of ceramic. But you'll need at least 70 times as much energy to produce a ceramic mug as you will to manufacture a polystyrene cup, and probably even more to produce a stainless steel mug.An interesting point, and correct -- but, considering that you'll easily use a ceramic mug far more than 70 times, the energy usage more than balances out in time. So as long as you're not pathologically washing the mug, of course. In the not-so-distant future, we'll hopefully see more systems that take advantage of gray water, efficiently reusing it so it won't be wasted on stuff like a single dishwashing cycle -- and reusable mugs will emerge an even clearer winner.
The bottom line is that as resources grow scarcer, we need to start moving away from single-use products made from environmentally destructive materials like Styrofoam -- and start promoting in consumer societies the habit of reusing key products like cups. I like Leibenluft's thought experiment because it doesn't reveal that Styrofoam is better than reusable mugs and dishwashers -- but most importantly, that both are unduly wasteful in their own ways.
That said, even if they pull close to even on the energy usage scale, Styrofoam's tendency to end up as non-biodegradable waste around the world makes it the clear loser. And that's why Styrofoam never beats reusable cups.