Friday, February 20, 2009

Is There Such a Thing as a Sustainable Disposable Cup?

On February 19 a "Sustainability Fair" was organized by Bob True, Director Food, Cafeteria, Gift Shop Services University of Illinois Medical Center and Faculty College of Applied Sciences Department of Kinesiology and Human Nutrition. It began with a series of presentations from manufacturers and distributors of disposable cups, plates, cutlery and to-go containers. The question is - which one is more sustainable?
A paper cup with 25% post-consumer recycled content (compostable)?
A polystyrene foam cup (recyclable under a special program)?
A #1 plastic cup with 20% post-consumer recycled content (recyclable)?
A biopolymer cup made from corn starch (compostable)?
Is it more important that the cup be made from a renewable resource or how much energy is used to make and transport it?
Currently UIC currently has no composting program nor can cups be recycled in most buildings on campus (except Student Center East) and in a land fill they may all last for hundreds of years.
Is it better then to use a cup than is made from a non-renewable petroleum product (plastic) or from a chemical process (polystyrene) but can then be recycled into a new cup?
If all of these end up in a land fill anyway, because we are not recycling or composting these products or they don't get put in the right container, should we use the one that weighs the least (polystyrene)?

One way to inform those decisions is through Life Cycle Analysis which evaluates the environmental burdens associated with a product by identifying and quantifying energy and material usage, as well as environmental releases from the raw materials to final disposal.

The Office of Sustainability and the Purchasing & Services and Recycling & Waste Management will be discussing these very questions as we develop policy documents. If you want to be part of the discussion watch our events calendar and come to a meeting or comment on this blog. In the meantime (and all the time) the best choice is a reusable mug such as the one the bookstore and convenience store sell.

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