Devil Cups

Take your coffee with cream, hold the styrene


We are what we drink—and what we drink from. I was once employed by a dysfunctional government organization. I managed to escape, but never forgot that in the main administrative offices of that dark place, everyone was served coffee in Styrofoam cups. That explained everything.

Styrofoam is the brand name of Dow Chemical’s own polystyrene product, which is used for industrial purposes including insulation. The ubiquitous Styrofoam cup is actually just a polystyrene cup. But in the same way that Kleenex became generic for tissues, Styrofoam is the name that stuck to that white substance that can poison food and drink.

Hot coffee with milk or cream in a polystyrene cup is not mere java but actually a cocktail of coffee and styrene. A suspected carcinogen that also mimics body estrogens, styrene migrates into the drinker and takes up residence. The presence of these chemicals is linked to numerous diseases including cancers. The Grinning Planet website ( reports that an EPA tissue survey showed that styrene was found in 100 percent of human fat samples biopsied. Fatty foods placed hot into (or reheated in) styrene containers greatly enhances the migration of the chemicals from container to human.

As much as I shudder to think I’m carrying styrene around in my body, I feel just as bad contemplating the floating scab of plastic, styrene and Styrofoam that makes up the North Pacific Gyre, a marine debris concentration reported twice the size of Texas and from 10 to 50 feet deep in places. That’s where so many of those packaging peanuts and coffee cups end up.

 Environment California legislative director Dan Jacobson pronounces them “devil cups,” and is circulating a petition to ban polystyrene. “Why should we get 10 minutes of use from a product that sticks around on the planet for a thousand years?” he asks. The organization has challenged Jamba Juice to stop using styrene cups by asking Californians to boycott the popular fruit smoothie chain.

“We are organizing a Styro-strike because we want styrene banned everywhere,” Jacobson says, “starting with Jamba Juice.” Jacobson is aware that Jamba Juice markets itself as a company that promotes healthy living and healthy drinks. Some of its stores promote customers bringing in their own reusable drink cups. But when you go up to the counter and order a drink, you get it in a styrene cup—except in those communities where the citizens have called for a ban. Orange County and Santa Cruz have bans, and next year Palo Alto enacts a recently voted ban.

“If they will stop serving drinks in styrene cups,” Jacobson promises, “I’ll be the first one in line for a mango smoothie.”

The biggest environmental problem with styrene is that it breaks into small pieces that are estimated to last 10 centuries and may never decompose. These bits and pieces defile the landscape and end up on the beach and in the craws of animals that can’t tell food from foam pellets until the object has been swallowed. Not only does styrene offer a toxic stand-in for real food, in the North Pacific Gyre it joins forces with plastic to displace food that would otherwise be present for marine life. Scientists have measured six times more plastic than plankton filling the waters of this area.


On April 13, the New York Times reported an invention to replace Styrofoam—a combination of fungus and volcanic glass invented by Eben Bayer in 2007 for use as insulation. But, like Dow’s Styrofoam, one doesn’t get takeout food in it or drink coffee from it. No one needs to invent a replacement for the foam cup, because it already has been invented: cardboard with wax lining or plant-based plastics that can be tossed in the compost pile to become soil.

I can’t understand why anyone’s still using styrene food and beverage containers when there are biodegradable alternatives. The boycott sounds like a good idea. My second grader will be disappointed about not going to Jamba Juice anymore, but I will be happy to make him smoothies at home served in biodegradable glass.