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Many people believe paper cups, because they “come from trees”, to be a better environmental choice than polystyrene foam. These same people are surprised to learn that paper cups are lined with plastic on one side (and sometimes two sides) so they can hold liquids. Still, an unscientific bias remains.
Careful comparisons, however, have shown this paper “halo” may be undeserved. For example, when you compare the manufacture of polystyrene foam hot beverage cups to the manufacture of comparable average-weight polyethylene (PE) plastic-coated paperboard hot cups with corrugated cup sleeves, an average-weight polystyrene hot beverage cup requires about one third less energy to produce as a comparable average-weight polyethylene (PE) plastic-coated paperboard hot cup with a corrugated cup sleeve.* Also, when you compare the manufacturing process of polystyrene foam cold beverage cups to the manufacturing process of representative-weight wax-coated paperboard cold cups, an average-weight polystyrene cold beverage cup requires approximately half as much energy to produce as a representative-weight wax-coated paperboard cup.†
In addition, compared to an average-weight polystyrene hot beverage cup, an average-weight polyethylene (PE) plastic-coated paperboard hot beverage cup generates almost three times as much total waste by weight,‡ and an average-weight polyethylene (PE) plastic-coated paperboard cold beverage cup generates almost two and one-half times as much total waste by weight as an average-weight polystyrene cold beverage cup.§
The three life-cycle inventories below have reached this conclusion. Although they were completed some time ago, the manufacturing processes have not changed much, and to our knowledge, no other studies comparing plastic-lined paper and polystyrene foam have been completed and made public as these have.
From the top, they are
2015 Anacostia Watershed Litter Survey
2011 Life-Cycle Inventory and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Study
Dr. Martin B. Hocking's study, "Reusable and Disposable Cups: An Energy Based Evaluation"(pdf)
Article from Consumers' Research: Dr. Martin B. Hocking's study, "Is Paper Better Than Plastic?"(pdf)
Executive Summary of the Final Peer-Reviewed Report:
Life Cycle Inventory of Polystyrene Foam, Bleached Paperboard, and Corrugated Paperboard Foodservice Products
* Franklin Associates, Ltd. Final Peer-Reviewed Report: Life Cycle Inventory of Polystyrene Foam, Bleached Paperboard, and Corrugated Paperboard Foodservice Products (Prepared for The Polystyrene Packaging Council, March 2006).
† Ibid, Table 2-3, p. 2-8.
‡ Ibid, Table 2-10, p. 2-23.
§ Ibid, Table 2-11, p. 2-24.