The Houston Chronicle has two different takes on polystyrene foodservice products this week, and it's notable how they seem be be coming from such different points of view. First, a science-related blog on the paper's Web site called SciGuy had an item on Sunday that asked "Better for the planet: Java in a mug or a Styrofoam cup?" It's notable, in this new era of PS product bans, that the report took a pretty balanced view. It noted that "it takes about 14 megajoules (or about 14 million times the energy required to lift an apple 1 meter) to manufacture a ceramic coffee mug. It takes 200,000 joules to make a polystyrene cup, about half the energy required to make a paper cup. So, even before other considerations, you'd have to use the ceramic mug 70 times to offset the energy of a single polystyrene cup." Adding in the energy of washing the ceramic cup, and it turns out that the mug has to be used 1,006 times to equal PS cups. "There are other factors, of course," notes SciGuy Eric Berger. "Polystyrene accumulates in landfills, and ceramic mugs much less so. But how many coffee mugs actually get used 1,006 times, or just about every day for three years?" Yesterday the Chronicle took a different approach to PS, with a Page 1 story on the Houston Independent School District switching away from "environmentally unfriendly lunch trays" at the suggestion of a 10-year-old pupil. It notes that the district plans to spend an extra $160,000 next year in order to buy biodegradable trays, instead of the PS variety it buys now. The story notes that: "The new trays take about nine months to decompose, compared with the hundreds of years it takes other polystyrene trays to break down, officials said." In addition to the higher cost, the new trays also mean other changes. For one, kids need to learn to neatly stack used trays back in the boxes they came in, rather than throwing them out in plastic trash bags, so that when they are disposed, moisture and oxygen can get in and make them decompose. The credit for the change goes to a rising sixth grader in the district.
Austin Fendley, who just finished fifth grade at Lovett Elementary, encouraged HISD to take the leap by publicly scolding them at a May school board meeting for using roughly 40 million foam trays a year. Worried that the old trays were bad for the environment and for students' health, he started packing his own lunch and conducted a science experiment involving alternative products. He said he's thrilled HISD is switching to a biodegradable trays. "I'm really surprised," he said from summer camp Tuesday. "I didn't know I would actually make a difference."Perhaps Fendley, or someone like him, is the next generation's SciGuy. What will that mean for the future of the plastics industry?