House Republicans have brought polystyrene foam cups back to the House cafeterias.
The chairman of the House Administration Committee, Californian Dan Lungren, said that after reviewing the $475,000 compostable paper cups program, he determined that it was "neither cost-effective nor energy-efficient."
Greens have skewered the decision as a gratuitous poke at environmentalism. Given the tin ear that most congressional Republicans have about the environment, it's tempting to believe that Lungren's review was cursory and that his move was another manifestation of that bizarre species of political correctness on the political right which holds that conservation and environmental stewardship are not conservative.
Put the question of motives aside for a bit. What cups to use? Paper, foam, or ceramic? To borrow a recent Meryl Streep movie title, it's complicated.
One of the seminal studies that looked into this question was published in 1994 by University of Victoria chemistry professor Martin Hocking. Using energy as his criterion, Hocking said reusable cups have far more embedded energy than one-use-only paper or foam cups because of the energy consumed in making them. A ceramic cup, for example, has 25 times as much embedded energy as a paper cup and 70 times as much as a foam cup.
If you assume that a reusable cup is washed in hot water with an efficient dishwasher after each use, the energy "break-even" point - at which the energy consumed in making and using throwaway cups matches the energy consumed in making and washing reusable cups - is 1,006 for ceramic mugs. That is, the ceramic cup would have to last through 1,007 uses and washings before using it would result in less energy consumption than using 1,006 foam cups once and throwing them out. For paper cups, the break-even point vs. ceramic mugs is 39.
Hocking's assumptions are not gospel. One, the study is going on two decades old. An EnergyStar dishwasher made today is more efficient than dishwashers manufactured after federal efficiency standards took effect the year Hocking published his study. Consumers can turn off heating elements used for drying by choosing the air-dry feature.
And honestly... how many people put their coffee mugs through the dishwasher after just one fill-up? How many closet Oscar Madisons out there give their mugs little more than a rinse and a promise after that cuppa joe?
Lungren, quoting information he received from the Government Accountability Office and House inspector general, said pulping the paper cups from the House cafeterias increased electricity use. Fuel was burned transporting the cups to the composting facility. In addition, he said, the Architect of the Capitol's alternate waste management system captures useful heat from incinerators without producing methane, a greenhouse gas.
Other issues to consider... making paper cups requires cutting trees, turning the wood into pulp, and bleaching it, an energy and chemical-intensive process. FYI, Starbucks is working with pulpmakers on a process to recycle used paper cups into new cups.
Manufacturing of polystyrene is chemically intensive. Polystyrene is made from styrene, a petrochemical that is classified as a possible human carcinogen. Chronically exposed styrene workers have exhibited a variety of neurological effects, including decreased color discrimination and hearing impairment, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry, a unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still more issues... paper breaks down, but in the anoxic conditions of a landfill, breakdown is very slow. Polystyrene foam is difficult to recycle. Once in the landfill, where the vast majority of foam cups end up, the cups will still be there centuries from now, when Lungren's successor in the 300th Congress convenes holographic meetings of the House Administration Committee.
Maybe by then, we will have figured the conundrum out. What do you think?
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