MadSci Network: Environment & Ecology

Re: Which is worse 'environmentally,' paper, styrofoam, or reuseable dishes?

Date: Fri Dec 29 14:37:57 2000
Posted By: Steven Korenstein, Grad student, Environmental/Occupational Health, Cal. State Un. Northridge
Area of science: Environment & Ecology
ID: 977962905.En

Steph and Tyler,

As with most questions about the environment, the answer usually begins 
with "it depends".  So here goes.  You ask if styrofoam is worse for the 
environment then paper or reusable plates.  Well it depends, paper 
producuts are often made from trees that have been grown on a farm, so the 
trees were meant to be cut and thus do not effect forests.  Also paper can 
be recycled fairly easily.  But paper takes a lot of water to produce and 
often chlorine is used in the manufactoring proccess which can cause 
several environmental problems.  Reusable dishes have some obvious 
advantages.  They do not take up land fill space and they only need to be 
made once, so they use less energy and raw material to produce.  As for 
cleaning, it is my opinion(and others) that if an energy efficient washer 
is used and is full so that many dishes are being washed with the same 
water, then this option is probably best.  However, as with most 
environmental issues it is not perfect.  For instace, you must use a 
detergent which has historically caused some problems, although with 
modern formulations the problems are reduced. I have one article that 
deals with styrofoam. It is from E-Magazine, which is not really a true 
"scientific" journal, but I have found it to be accurate (see below).  It 
does not really cover your question exactly ( I could not find an article 
that addresses the water issue) but I think you will find it interesting.

In conclusion, it is my profesional opinion (I am a hazardouos materials 
scientist for the California Environmental Protection Agency)that although 
not perfect, reusable dishes are probably best for the environment as well 
as for human health.

Good luck with you research.

E-Magazine November/December 1998

Styrofoam is actually Dow's trade name for polystyrene. There are two 
problems with polystyrene, involving both production and waste. During 
production, a blowing agent blows gas into the polystyrene. For years, 
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were the agents--contributing to the 
destruction of the Earth's ozone layer. After the Montreal Protocol's ban 
on CFCs, slightly-more benign HCFCs replaced them. However, Ozone Action's 
Christopher Ball notes, "HCFCs are better for the ozone layer than CFCs, 
but they still cause problems." Because of this, HCFCs have also recently 
been banned, with their total phasing-out not expected until the year 
2030. Carbon dioxide and pentane (a highly flammable chemical that 
contributes to smog) are also used as blowing agents.
On the waste issue, polystyrene products, including cups, don't biodegrade 
well and, if incinerated, produce toxic ash. To combat such problems, 
recycling programs are popping up, but not yet everywhere. The web page of 
the Polystyrene Packaging Council lists available facilities.
Drinking from reuseable mugs, however, is an easy way to reduce such waste 
problems and ease pressures on the ozone layer. If people can't be 
convinced to change their throw-away habits, try telling them that the 
mugs can save them money, too. Many national chains such as Starbucks and 
7-11, and many college dining facilities, offer discounts to customers 
providing their own mugs.

From E/Magazine Nov/Dec 1998

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