I helped clean up after a dinner event a few days ago and noticed that one trash bag was filled almost entirely with Styrofoam coffee cups. That bag, I realized, would join countless others in a landfill somewhere where they would sit for the next hundred years or so contributing to air and soil pollution.
Foam cups started out as such a boon to coffee drinkers on the go when 7-Eleven stores came out with the first to-go coffee cup in 1964. Up till then your take-with cup was paper and you wound up with blisters from carrying it.
Foam cups first showed up in the late 1950s, but they leaked so badly that you needed to stack two or more of them together if you expected to still have coffee when you got back to the office.
Styrofoam itself was trademarked in 1946 by Dow Chemical as the name of its insulation product. Polystyrene was first produced in 1839 by a German chemist but waited in the wings for more than a century for someone to find a practical use for it.
The whole idea of portable cups showed up in 1907 when a Boston lawyer by the name of Lawrence Luellen invented a paper cup for drinking water. He had spent years watching people get sick from sharing a common tin cup at the city water pump. His invention would become known as the Dixie Cup.
Luellen’s invention didn’t get much notice until the Spanish flu swept across the country in 1918, killing a half-million souls. After that, the disposable paper cup was here to stay.
Today foam cups are everywhere, and so are the hazards. Not a whole lot of thought went into it at first, but polystyrene is non-biodegradable and non-recyclable. Folks who have studied these things claim that 1,369 tons of foam products are dumped into landfills every day. The daily toll of coffee cups alone if laid end to end would stretch completely around the earth.
There are other problems with foam cups. The material reacts to many of the the liquids poured into them and releases toxins into the drinks. Experts warn to never serve orange juice or lemonade in Styrofoam cups, The packaging industry addressed the contamination issue a few years ago by coming up with peanuts made from sorghum and corn syrup to replace foam peanuts. Meanwhile, Styrofoam products continue to be the fifth largest producer of toxic waste in the nation, and take up 30 percent of all landfill space.
For my part, I’ll use the foam for insulating my house and carry my coffee around in my handy-dandy thermos.