Why You Should Think Twice About Solo Cups

October 10th 2015

"A red Solo cup is the best receptacle for barbecues, tailgates, fairs, and festivals," sings country singer Toby Keith in the song "Red Solo Cup," and he also says that it takes them 14 years to decompose. Unfortunately, the truth is that they take about 450 years to break down. And even if they make their way into a recycling facility, there's no guarantee that these cultural icons won't be sorted out and sent to a landfill anyway.

As ATTN: has reported before, the reason for this is because the cups are made of a plastic that is very difficult to break down. There are six different types of plastics, and Solo cups are categorized as a no. 6 plastic. This is the same category as Styrofoam, polystyrene, and expanded polystyrene. When heated, the plastics can release dangerous chemicals, like the potential carcinogen Styrene. This means that some recycling centers aren’t equipped to break them down or could be exposing their workers to dangerous chemicals.

RELATED: Plastic Bags Are Hurting More Than The Environment

Recycling sorting facilityWikimedia - wikimedia.org

What gets recycled and what doesn’t?

Just because an item has the recycling symbol, which was introduced in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) to identify basic resin types in plastics, it does not necessarily mean the product is recyclable. Few recycling centers actually take no. 6 plastics. Whether or not the cups will actually be recycled depends on the waste municipality in your city and whether or not their recycling facilities take no. 6 plastic. So, your good intentions that left Friday night’s cups in the recycling bin sadly don’t always matter.

When evaluating what to do with the material, municipalities will look at the market for the recycled object and how hard it is to sort.

Workers sort through wasteWikimedia - wikimedia.org

RELATED: Plastic Bags Are Hurting More Than The Environment

What other party items cannot be recycled?

In addition to plastic cups, there are a few other, surprising party items that generally can't be recycled:

  • Pizza boxes and left-over containers usually can’t be recycled because food contamination, like grease, corrupts parts of the recycling process. 
  • Plastic bottles and caps are two different substances and even require different melting temperatures to break them down. If your municipality has to decide what to take, they might skip out on the bottle lids because plastic bottles are more valuable on the market. 
  • Plastic hangers contain a blend of multiple plastic types. This makes them difficult to break down in the recycling process.
  • Mirrors contain chemicals that can’t be mixed with regular glass, so they aren’t recyclable either.

If you want to make a positive impact on the environment, minimize the amount of waste you create and re-purpose the plastic you do use. After all, it's easier to reduce and reuse than it is to recycle.

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