Are styrofoam cups biodegradable? (5 properties) 

In this article, the biodegradability of styrofoam cups will be discussed. Other covered topics will be: 

  • What are disposable cups?
  • What are styrofoam cups?
  • What is the impact of styrofoam cups on the environment?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • Are styrofoam cups biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Are styrofoam cups biodegradable?

It is analysed that styrofoam cups are made from a type of plastic called EPS (Expanded Polystyrene). This synthetic polymer is made from fossil fuels and hence is non-biodegradable. 

Biodegradability is the breakdown by the action of microbes and external factors. If a product is non-biodegradable, it may remain in the environment for hundreds of years which will impact us in a grave manner. 

Disposable cups are becoming the new norm. It is argued that there may be more than 500 billion disposable cups used every year. However, the environmental assessment of such cups is crucial to ensure that the environment and our future are not put at any risk. 

It is estimated that styrofoam cups may remain in the environment or landfill settings which will put unsustained pressure on waste management systems eventually leading to the decapacitation of such systems. This will impact mother nature gravely. 

What are disposable cups?

This section of the article will detail an introduction to styrofoam cups. The introduction will also deal with the basic properties of styrofoam cups and what materials are used to make styrofoam cups. 

These questions are essential because the innate qualities, properties and materials used to make any product will reveal a lot about the product, including its impact on the environment. 

These questions will also help us build a stance on the biodegradability status of styrofoam cups. Biodegradability is the degradation by the action of microbes. However, other agents like enzymes and external factors also may play an important role in the biodegradation process. 

With the rising trend toward a life on the go, the eminence and importance of disposable materials have risen to significant extents. That is mainly because today’s fast-paced life leaves little room for slow-paced products and objects. 

It is estimated that each year, more than 500 billion disposable cups are used. However, it is an essential question of what is the environmental cost of such products because that cost will have to be paid by future generations. 

Usually, when it comes to disposable cups, there are three types of materials that are used to make disposable cups. These include: 

  • Paper cups
  • Plastic cups 
  • Styrofoam cups

Paper cups are made from materials derived from trees. This material has a high amount of cellulose that drives the natural and eco-friendly properties of paper cups. However, paper cups may also have a plastic lining which may lead to adverse negative impacts on the environment. 

Plastic cups on the other hand are supposed to be the most impactful to mother nature because such cups are made from materials that are derived from fossil fuels. This leads to environmental problems of global warming and emissions of harmful gases. 

However, the situation is not that dark. Recent technological advances have led to the development of bioplastics made from plant-based materials and DNA from bio sources. Cups made from bioplastics are considered environmentally friendly and even biodegradable. 

Lastly, we have styrofoam cups. These cups are also made from a type of plastic. The plastic is termed EPS (Expanded Polystyrene). Further details will be unravelled in the next section of the article. 

What are styrofoam cups? (5 properties) 

styrofoam cups are cups made from a type of plastic. Plastic is a polymer. A polymer is a substance made from many monomers that are bonded together. 

The word polymer is derived from Greek origins which means many parts. Polymers may either be natural or synthetic. 

Plastics are a type of synthetic polymer that is made from products derived from fossil fuels. This means that there will be a negative impact of such products on the environment and human health. 

There are usually seven types of plastics that are found in the consumer marketplace. Each type of category is suited for a specific function or application; that is why we have plastics of different kinds to cater to the diverse needs of consumers. 

The various categories of plastics are: 

  • PET
  • HDPE
  • LDPE 
  • PP
  • PVC 
  • PS
  • New plastics 

Styrofoam cups are made from the sixth type of plastic known as polystyrene. Polystyrene is made from styrene monomers. 

The following are the common properties of styrofoam cups: 

  • Thermally efficient
  • Durable
  • Lightweight
  • Moisture resistant 
  • Thermoplasticity 

What is the impact of styrofoam cups on the environment?

There are a number of environmental impacts of styrofoam cups. These include: 

  • Styrofoam cups may remain in the system for many hundred years. In some cases, this duration may be more than 450 years
  • Styrofoam cups may cause ocean pollution impacting water quality and marine life
  • Styrofoam cups may lead to the leaching of harmful chemicals into the soil
  • Styrofoam cups also lead to fervent waste accumulation and buildup which may affect waste management systems
  • Styrofoam cups may cause air pollution leading to anomalies such as global warming
  • Styrofoam cups may also cause particle pollution 
  • Styrofoam cups are associated with wastage of natural resources 

This is mainly because plastics are made from products that are derived from fossil fuels. When fossil fuels are used, it results in the increased emission of greenhouse gases. 

Greenhouse gases are gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane et cetera. These gases entrap the sun’s energy and lead to a phenomenon known as global warming. 

Global warming leads to other environmental issues such as increased global temperatures, effects on life, deforestation, melting of glaciers, increased melting of glaciers, increased flooding, and unprecedented weather conditions. 

The impacts of plastics are not only limited to the environment but are also manifested in humans. Common complications that arise as a result of plastic use and exposure include: 

  • Organ damage 
  • Damage to skin 
  • Cancer 
  • Eye diseases
  • Hormonal disruption 
  • Neuro Complications 
  • Developmental issues
  • Damage to the foetus 
  • Heart & lung diseases 

The environmental impact of plastics may include: 

  • Deforestation
  • Loss of species
  • Loss of diversity
  • Disruption of food chains
  • Loss of habitats
  • Water pollution
  • Effect on aquatic and marine life
  • Air pollution
  • Global warming
  • Damage to crops
  • Loss of substantiality
  • Soil infertility

What is biodegradation?

A lucid understanding of biodegradation is essential to determine the biodegradability status of styrofoam cups. 

Biodegradability is the breakdown of waste by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, decomposers, algae, and even protozoa. These microbes ensure that the waste generated does not accumulate and gets back to the system of life. 

If there is waste accumulation, there will be negative effects that waste accumulation which will impact all areas of our life. 

Therefore, biodegradability can also be regarded as nature’s dustbin. What is the role of a dustbin? To keep the waste segregated from the environment and make sure it does not pollute the environment. 

The role of biodegradability is very similar. Other than microbes, there are also external factors which play an important role in the biodegradation process. These may include aeration, sunlight, temperature and pressure. 

The time taken for a product or substance to biodegrade depends on the type of material and the external conditions. 

Based on biodegradability, there is a classification of waste. Waste may either be biodegradable or non-biodegradable. 

Not all waste can be degraded by the action of microbes. Most of the waste that is from synthetic materials produced at the expense of chemicals and human innovation is not biodegradable. 

It may take hundreds of years for such waste to degrade and therefore, it is termed non-biodegradable waste. Examples of non-biodegradable waste may include:

  • Resins 
  • HDPE
  • Nylon
  • Acrylonitrile 
  • Epoxies

These materials may take from a few hundred years to a thousand years to degrade. While they persist, they cause a plethora of problems to the environment and life. Examples of biodegradable waste may include plant waste, animal waste, manure et cetera. 

Examples of biodegradable waste include: 

  • Plant waste 
  • Animal waste 
  • Manure sewage
  • Natural fabrics like cotton, wool or silk 
  • Natural polymers 
  • Synthetic materials made from natural sources like bioplastics 

The impact of biodegradable waste on the environment is very less compared to non-biodegradable waste.

Are styrofoam cups biodegradable?

Based on the analysis of current literature, it is doable to make our final assumptions. Regarding biodegradability, the following points can be said with assurance: 

  • Products made from natural sources like plants or animals are usually biodegradable 
  • Products made from non-natural sources like synthetic polymers are usually non-biodegradable

Since styrofoam cups are made from non-natural sources, it can be said with finality that styrofoam cups are not biodegradable. 

It is estimated that styrofoam cups may remain in the environment or landfill settings for more than 500 years which is a lot. 

The non-biodegradability of styrofoam cups will put unsustained pressure on waste management systems eventually leading to the decapacitation of such systems. This will impact mother nature gravely. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that disposable cups are becoming the new norm. It is argued that there may be more than 500 billion disposable cups used every year. However, the environmental assessment of such cups is crucial to ensure that the environment and our future is not put at any risk. 

Biodegradability is the breakdown by the action of microbes and external factors. If a product is non-biodegradable, it may remain in the environment for hundreds of years which will impact us in a grave manner. 

It is analysed that styrofoam cups are made from a type of plastic called EPS (Expanded Polystyrene). This synthetic polymer is made from fossil fuels and hence is non-biodegradable. 

It is estimated that styrofoam cups may remain in the environment or landfill settings which will put unsustained pressure on waste management systems eventually leading to the decapacitation of such systems. This will impact mother nature gravely. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are styrofoam cups biodegradable?

How many years does it take to decompose styrofoam cups?

It is estimated that styrofoam cups may remain in the environment or landfill settings for more than 500 years.

Can styrofoam cups be recycled?

Yes, styrofoam cups can be recycled. It is one of the best solutions to non-biodegradable waste.

Reference

  • Häkkinen, T., & Vares, S. (2010). Environmental impacts of disposable cups with special focus on the effect of material choices and end of life. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(14), 1458-1463.
  • Hocking, M. B. (1994). Reusable and disposable cups: An energy-based evaluation. Environmental Management, 18(6), 889-899.
  • Mitchell, J., Vandeperre, L., Dvorak, R., Kosior, E., Tarverdi, K., & Cheeseman, C. (2014). Recycling disposable cups into paper plastic composites. Waste Management, 34(11), 2113-2119.
  • Yuhui, M. (2018). Problems and resolutions in dealing with waste disposable paper cups. Science progress, 101(1), 1-7.
  • Van der Harst, E., & Potting, J. (2013). A critical comparison of ten disposable cup LCAs. Environmental impact assessment review, 43, 86-96.
  • Sustainability Office. (November 10, 2011). styrofoam: Why it is harmful, and alternatives. Retrieved from: http://blogs.colgate.edu/sustainability/2011/11/10/styrofoamfoam-why-it-is-harmful-alternatives/

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