Environmental Impact of a Foam Cup Essay

1005 Words Nov 10th, 2015 5 Pages
A foam cup, also referred to as a styrofoam cup is a disposable drinking cup made of plastic, expanded polystyrene (EPS) to be exact. Despite seeming like a very mundane and trivial product, it’s formulation is extensive, covering crude oil extraction, refining, chemical transformation, distribution, retail, and disposal. Both the production and disposal of foam cups also have serious environmental impacts and its widespread use has generated significant recycling issues.

Raw Material Extraction

The lifecycle of a foam cup begins with the extraction of crude oil by oil rigs both on-shore and from beneath the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico. These rigs require large amounts of manpower and energy and freshwater to operate, and pose
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After ethylene is reacted with benzene to make styrene monomer, the properties of plastic start to evolve. Styrene monomer is highly reactive, and in the presence of a catalyst can be polymerized, which basically means addition, to make polystyrene plastic. This plastic is clear and brittle. To make a Foam cup, the polystyrene is expanded by blowing air into it. Expanded polystyrene is approximately 98% air, and only 2% polystyrene. It is this large volume and concentration of air which gives it such good insulating properties. It is one of the few materials where such a small actual weight of product can completely protect your hand from the hot coffee in the cup.

Of the chemical manufacturing plants described, the largest environmental impact is with the olefins cracker where naphtha is broken up into ethylene and benzene through the use of intense heat and pressure. The energy use is huge and on a per pound basis, its usage is even higher than the refinery. It’s furnaces burn a tremendous amount of natural gas to reach the temperatures to break up the incoming naphtha alkanes. This process releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and special permits must now be obtained before one can even be built. Also any abnormal releases of hydrocarbon must be reported to proper authorities.

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