Franklin Report

Life-Cycle Inventory and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Study

Polystyrene Foam Cups and Plates Use Less Energy, Water Than Paper or Corn-based Alternatives Comparisons Vary on Solid Waste, Greenhouse Gases

A February 4, 2011 peer reviewed study finds that commonly used cups, plates and sandwich containers made of polystyrene foam use significantly less energy and water than comparable paper-based or corn-based (polylactic: PLA) alternatives, primarily due to polystyrene foam's much lower weight. 

The polystyrene foam products create less, similar or more solid waste by volume than alternatives depending on the product and its weight, according to the study, and greenhouse gas emission comparisons vary widely, based on uncertainties over whether paper-based products degrade after disposal.

The life-cycle inventory and greenhouse gas emissions study1 compares average-weight polystyrene foam, paperboard and PLA cups used for hot (16 ounce) and cold (32 ounce) drinks, 9-inch dinner plates and "clamshell" sandwich containers. 2Researchers modeled energy consumption, water use, solid waste (by weight and volume) and greenhouse gas emissions for each product resulting from production, transportation and disposal. The peer-reviewed paper updates a 2006 study and incorporates additional data, most notably on greenhouse gas emissions following disposal. 

Some key findings:

The study's authors found that lower weight products with similar functionality—such as polystyrene foam products composed of more than 90% air—generally produce smaller environmental burdens.

Although PLA is corn-based, the study notes: "According to the [PLA producer] NatureWorks LLC website, PLA does not biodegrade in landfills."

The study was prepared for the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group (PFPG) of the American Chemistry Council. For more information on this new study, please visit



1 Life Cycle Inventory of Foam Polystyrene, Paper-Based, and PLA Foodservice Products, 2011, Franklin Associates, a Division of ERG.
2 No commercially available foam PLA products were found for the product categories analyzed. Therefore, the PLA products evaluated were PLA-coated paperboard hot

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