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Paper or Foam -- For Your Take-Out Cup, That Is?

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Go into Jamba Juice today and you'll find something new. Your drink will be served in a specially designed double-walled paper cup.

That's because, back in August 2012, when fifth grader Mia Hansen ordered a smoothie at a Jamba Juice in Carlsbad, California, only to have it served to her in a polystyrene foam cup, she started a petition on Change.org asking the company to stop using foam cups. After her petition received 135,000 signatures in three weeks, Jamba Juice announced it would end its use of foam food service containers. Recently, the company began phasing in what it calls an "eco-friendly" cup -- a paper cup featuring a design created just for the drinks it sells. "As a company with a strong concern for people and the planet," CEO James D. White said about the cup, "we continually seek to improve our environmental footprint across all areas of our business, and our move to this innovative paper cup is a major milestone in these efforts."

But there are problems with this foam-to-paper shift. Despite common public perception, paper cups are not easy to recycle. Most paper cups are lined with a thin layer of wax, which makes the cup difficult to recycle. Indeed, one recent study revealed that in major American cities only 10 percent of paper food service containers are recycled, lower than the 16 percent for foam containers. In addition, a paper cup creates more solid waste, by weight, than its foam counterpart.

Consider also the process used to make a paper cup -- harvesting wood, converting wood into paper, then producing the cup itself. "It takes two and a half times as much energy to make a paper cup as it does to make a foam cup," Christopher Bonanos wrote in New York. "Foam cups are also much lighter than paper cups, reducing the amount of fuel needed to ship them to the store and to cart them away as trash. Foam also produces a lot less manufacturing waste, because there are no paper offcuts to discard." As a result, a paper cup actually creates a larger carbon footprint than a foam cup, a result opposite to what Jamba Juice is trying to achieve with its move from foam to paper.

Sensible or not, Jamba Juice is following a growing national trend whereby companies are shifting to paper food service containers from those made of polystyrene foam. (Polystyrene is the generic name for foam products; Styrofoam, a brand name owned by Dow Chemical, is mostly used in insulation.) The trend is being driven by public sentiment and municipal governments. Foam food service containers are already banned in a number of cities, mostly on the West Coast -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. Numerous smaller municipalities have also adopted a ban, among them Albany County, New York; Glen Cove, New York; and Amherst, Massachusetts.

In December 2013, after successfully securing bans on smoking in public places, trans fats in foods, and large-size sugary drinks, Michael R. Bloomberg banned the use of foam food service containers as one of his last acts as mayor of New York City. Though unanimously supporting the ban, the New York City Counsel gave industry one year to prove that polystyrene foam could be recycled. Without proof, the ban will go into effect in July 2015. Following New York's lead, San Jose, California, and Washington, D.C. -- to name just two municipalities -- are considering bans. Baltimore began to weigh a ban, but reconsidered in mid-2013 when local businesses balked.

As municipalities have taken action, corporations responded. In September 2013, McDonald's announced it would phase out foam cups. The year before, Dunkin' Donuts devised a plan to phase in a new cup over the next three years. Even so, Dunkin' Donuts was realistic about what this meant. "A polystyrene ban will not eliminate waste or increase recycling," the company said in a statement. "[I]t will simply replace one type of trash with another."

What corporations are discovering is the move from foam to paper can be complicated. Just this month, Starbucks disclosed that, despite its best efforts, it would not meet its previously announced recycling goals. In 2008, the company declared that all company-owned stores would feature recycling by 2015. But in a recent Global Responsibility Report Starbucks admitted that only 39 percent of its company-owned stores currently recycle. This means its 2015 deadline cannot be met. Indeed, Starbucks may never reach its recycling goals.

"Recycling seems like a simple, straightforward initiative," Starbucks conceded in a statement. "But it's actually quite challenging." To keep its coffee hot, for example, Starbucks lines its paper cups with a layer of plastic. That plastic must be removed before the used cup can be recycled. A recycler will remove the plastic only if there are enough cups to make it cost effective.

"Paradoxically, the problem is that Starbucks customers don't throw away enough cups to make recycling a viable option," Adam Minter wrote in Bloomberg View, noting that in a 2010 pilot program Starbucks collected three tons of cups from its stores in Toronto to be recycled in the United States. Those three tons represented a tiny fraction of the 51.5 million tons of paper products recycled that year. Additionally, placing used paper cups in a compost heap instead of a landfill presents another problem. "Composting keeps the cups out of landfills," Minter wrote, "but it generates greenhouse gases while destroying the recycling value packed into the cup's fibers."

One answer to industry's conundrum is to advance the process of recycling polystyrene. "An improved infrastructure," Martin Hocking wrote in Science, "is all that is required to make this option a more significant reality and convert this perceived negative aspect of polyfoam use to a positive one."

In New York, the clock is ticking on just such a process. Finding a breakthrough in recycling could change the balance of power in the polystyrene-paper debate, which could have a profound effect on both business and the environment.