Glass vs. Styrofoam at the church potluck
We are often asked about the environmental effects of using Styrofoam instead of reusable utensils at church or other functions. Here's what we came up with, based on the example of the humble coffee cup.
Many congregations have a supply of glassware on hand, yet often use disposable Styrofoam products for meals or other special events where food or drink is involved. The reasons may be several, including sanitation (health department rules concerning washing reusable items), environmental cost (thinking throw-away items use fewer resources than washing reusables), economic cost (the perception that it may be less expensive to use throw-away products than to wash reusables), time savings (no need to wash items), division of labor (if certain people are always the ones doing the dish-washing), words and deeds (which speaks louder?).
While the choice of glass vs. Styrofoam is not as important environmentally as some other issues related to food consumption (see Eat, Drink, and Be Wary…? below), it is important for its environmental, economic, and symbolic value. Let's take the points above in order:
HOWEVER, while Styrofoam may seem “cleaner” at the point of use, read on:
In addition, as a petroleum product a simple Styrofoam cup is the end result of one of the dirtiest and most destructive processes on the planet. And there are the trips to the store to buy them: Burning a gallon of gas equals 36 kilowatts of energy—or the equivalent of the energy used to make 360 Styrofoam cups. Furthermore, we need a large plastic garbage bag, a petroleum product.
That's the retail price of reusable vs. disposable. If we add in the costs of a) the time and gasoline spent shopping b) the cost of trash disposal c) the long-term costs of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to the planet—well, the cost difference is even greater.
Sources: Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment; Environmental Science (G. Tyler Miller); Rowan University Study, 2003, The Omnivore's Dilemma (Pollan) For a concise summary of Pollan's book, click here.