J500 Media and the Environment

can serving coffee in polystyrene cups be the ‘greener’ choice? by jessicasb

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how two of my favorite coffee shops use polystyrene cups, one of those making the switch very recently. It was this latter coffee shop where I talked with a barista about their use of polystyrene cups.
polystyrene cups
A few months ago, this coffee shop was serving drinks in paper cups with java jackets. The owner of the shop stopped buying java jackets, and as any avid coffee drinker would know, the feeling of holding a hot cup of morning joe in a paper cup with no java jacket is definitely uncomfortable. “People were taking two cups,” the barista said. For the sake of saving money, and preventing people from taking two cups for every drink, they switched to the polystyrene cups.

“I was getting cussed at by customers” after the switch, she said. So she typed up a polystyrene fact sheet that’s posted on the shop’s register. It says polystyrene is 95% air and is recyclable, among other points. But is the fact sheet misleading, considering polystyrene is not biodegradable and hardly any students who frequent the shop would actually recycle their cup?

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make working here,” the barista said about making the switch. But she said after looking into polystyrene, it wasn’t “any worse” than doubling up on two paper cups or using a paper cup and a java jacket.

The barista seemed open to discuss other environmental options, and really sympathized with customers’ defiance of their new cups. She said the coffee shop would have a new owner soon, and would possibly switch back to paper cups and java jackets then.

In the meantime, serving in polystyrene cups has shown a more environmentally friendly trend emerging from this shop’s customers.

“If we used paper cups, no one would bring their own cup,” the barista said. “No one wants to use foam, so everyone is bringing their own cup now.”

— Jessica Sain-Baird

This post is a follow-up to my post, “How much responsibility should your coffee shop have?” Thanks to Fillmore Photography for the image.

9 Comments so far
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It is a good idea to make a switch to a cup that is more eco-friendly, but the porblem doesn’t start with students not thinking about recycling them: In Lawrence, I don’t know if there is anywhere that we can recycle plastic #6.

So while this is a noble effort, will Lawrence’s inability to recycle it make polystyrene a moot point?

Comment by Lauren Keith

BYOC! The customers should not complain about polystyrene compared to paper. I find it humorous that they would bring their own cups only because they are now foam. Shops need to offer more incentives to customers who bring their own cup/mug anyway.

Comment by matthewtb

The availability of recycling centers definitely has something to do with this. If there were a polystyrene recycling bin next to each coffee shop, for instance, I trust that these cups wouldn’t make it into the trash as much.

Comment by jessicasb

So, basically, what we should all do is commit to carrying our own coffee cups! I am a huge tea-drinker and I bring my cup everywhere. It sometimes gets annoying lugging it around but it eases the guilt of grabbing a polystyrene cup or two paper cups every day!

Comment by brennad87

The migration of styrene from a polystyrene cup into the beverage it contains has been observed to be as high as 0.025% for a single use. That may seem like a rather low number, until you work it this way: If you drink beverages from polystyrene cups four times a day for three years, you may have consumed about one foam cup’s worth of styrene along with your beverage.

Mmm…. chem-i-callyyyy…

Comment by paper cups

I understand the need to move away from throw away sleeves and cups. I agree whole heartedly that using a different cup is a great way to increase awareness. I wonder if there are companies interested in a reusable sleeve for hot and cold beverages that would also provide a revenue stream?

Comment by Andersot

So rather than pay for java jackets, your saying that it’s better to just to provide a cup people don’t want to use, so they bring their own? Pushing styrofoam cups and hoping people won’t take them is not how you save the environment. The customers are saving the environment, but you are still pushing styrofoam cups for the simple reason that it’s cheaper for you. It’s also cheaper to dump toxic waste into a river than it is to dispose of it properly. In your argument, you would put a trash can out that says “Will be dumped in the river”, and then claim it is environmentally friendly because nobody would use it.

Comment by Bad Argument

Completely ignoring the ‘green’ issue regarding styrene v. paper cups, Styrene has been studied extensively, and is known to pose a dangerous (ie. cancer-causing) risk when used with hot beverages/foods. Just do a search and you will find ample evidence for not serving coffee or tea in styrene cups.
I agree that bringing one’s own cup to coffee shops is the best idea.

Comment by Jan

The barista is making the right choice here, when comparing paper cup and polystrene cup that will be thrown away. Paper cups take a lot more of our natural resources to manufacture. Modern landfills are engineered to not let things biodegrade. That’s a good thing because the paper cups release methane gas when biodegrading. If going to an incinerator polystyrene cups are great in getting back resources. I love my earth, lets save it!

Comment by Brent

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