University of California, San Diego

July 23, 1997
ALL AT UCSD (Excluding Medical Center)
SUBJECT: Paper versus Styrofoam
Housing and Dining Services has a continuing responsibility to focus on environmental issues, an obligation we take seriously. The Department has a recycling program that has been recognized by many. We know the ideal would be to eliminate all trash so we actively encourage the use of reusable items in a variety of ways. This includes providing environmental mugs at no cost to new freshmen living on campus and using permanent ware in our Revelle, Muir, Marshall, and Warren operations. In addition, we work with environmental and recycling committees on an ongoing basis to educate the campus community. All of these efforts will continue indefinitely.
As much as we try to emphasize the use of reusable items, however, there are times when some of our customers need us to provide disposable products. For that reason we try to keep abreast of the latest information to insure that we use the most environmental-friendly products available. Recently we have been reviewing the literature on the relative merits of disposable paper versus Styrofoam products. Some surprising findings are emerging: CFC's are no longer used in making Styrofoam, the life cycle assessment described below leans towards Styrofoam, and one is no worse than the other decomposing in properly designed land fills except that paper does give off methane gas.
There is a new recognition that a complete life cycle assessment is necessary to evaluate the environmental impact of a product. Such an assessment would begin with the raw material acquisition and continue through the various manufacturing processes, noting energy usage, waste products generated and recyclability, ending with ultimate product disposal.
The experts all agree that analysis of the environmental merit of paper versus Styrofoam is a complex issue. Most experts agree that making a paper cup takes more raw materials, uses more utilities (energy), and causes more emissions to air than making a Styrofoam cup. Where they disagree is by how much.
Paper starts with trees. Styrofoam starts with petroleum. Styrofoam needs no trees but paper--even uncoated paper--needs petroleum.
Dr. Martin B. Hocking, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Victoria, B.C., in his study on "Paper Versus Polystyrene: A Complex 
Choice," notes that it takes 4-6 times the raw material for an uncoated paper cup as for a polystyrene cup. He estimates it takes 25 to 27g of wood and bark for a paper cup with a finished weight of 10.1g. Another source (San Luis Obispo Juice Club) indicates that paper uses three times
its final weight in raw wood. At 10.1g that would be 30.3g of wood and bark.
Dr. Hocking says it takes 10 times the steam and 14-20 times the electricity to produce that uncoated paper cup as compared to its Styrofoam counterpart. US News and World Report, quoting Lester Lave, Director of the Green Design Initiative at Carnegie William University, says it takes half the energy and 35% fewer toxic chemicals to make Styrofoam. Said another way that would be about two times the energy and a little under three times the toxic chemicals to make paper.
Dr. Hocking reports that the paper cup uses two times the cooling water and generates 300 times the waste water, 10-40 times the contaminants and, because of its greater weight, 1.3-1.8 times the emissions to air. San Luis Obispo Juice Club believes paper uses six times the cooling water and agrees with 300 times the waste water.
Both Dr. Hocking and San Luis Obispo Juice Club say paper is 2.5 times the cost of Styrofoam. Dr. Hocking attributes this at least in part to paper's higher labor costs. The actual bid quotations received for products used by the campus Dining Services were 2.1 times higher for paper. For UCSD this means that Housing and Dining Services spends in excess of $70,000 more for paper products than polystyrene.
There is unanimous agreement that paper weighs more than Styrofoam. That means it costs more to transport and uses more space in landfills. Statistics on the amount of added fuel for transportation are unavailable, but Dr. Hocking equates 100% of the finished weight of both paper (10.1g) and Styrofoam (1.5g) to mass to landfill. At that rate paper uses well over six times the landfill space.
Dr. Hocking indicates that after use recyclability is possible with either product although the adhesive used with paper cups is a problem as is the lack of infrastructure to take advantage of Styrofoam's recyclability options. Disposal of both is likewise problematic: paper doesn't necessarily biodegrade as well as once believed and it creates substantial quantities of methane while Styrofoam does not decompose but apparently doesn't create harmful gases because it is essentially inert.
While neither product is friendly to the environment, Styrofoam may be the lesser of two evils. This being the case we would like to change to the use of Styrofoam.
But before doing so, we would like to hear from you about your choice and why. Please send us an E-mail to lbarrett@ucsd.edu. Thank you for your input.
Larry L. Barrett
Director of Housing and Dining
Services Administration