Demystifying the Myth:Styrofoam Simplified

The article attempts to answer one of the more common questions students keep asking: “Why does HBS use Styrofoam cups on campus as opposed to paper or plastic?” I met with Restaurant Associates and the HBS Operations Department looking for answers!

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked why we use Styrofoam at HBS, I might be less worried about finding a job! HBS went through 635,000 Styrofoam cups and containers in 2008 (approximately 353 per student) and I am glad so many of you want to know why. In light of all the controversy surrounding Styrofoam, I met with Restaurant Associates (“RA”) and the HBS Department of Operations (“Ops”) to understand the reasons why HBS doesn’t plan on switching to paper or plastic for hot food and beverages any time soon.

In 2007, Ops conducted a study to understand the trade-offs between using paper, plastic, compostable and Styrofoam products. The study assessed the costs and benefits of these options taking into account raw materials, inputs necessary for production (e.g. water and electricity), nature and mass of weight produced, travel distance, weight per item for travel, final disposability of the items, and of course, the cost.

Their conclusion was that given our current infrastructure (in the absence of composting), Styrofoam products are more ecologically safe and more cost-effective than other alternatives. While we compost food waste in Spangler and Kresge, we do not have the infrastructure to compost “front of the house.”

So while Styrofoam takes a long time to biodegrade (approximately 20,000 years), paper takes roughly 500 years when it’s trapped in a landfill! In short, less waste is produced in the process of making the cups and the cost of production is less expensive. RA also pointed out a few more practical, but important benefits of Styrofoam: it retains heat better than paper cups, so not only does your drink stay hot longer, you don’t have to double up on cups or add a sleeve to avoid burning your hands.

That said, I encourage all of you to use real mugs, plates, cups, etc. Just keep in mind that according to Ops’s study, using a real mug is only less harmful to the environment if you plan on using it at least 120 times! That goes for the dishware in Spangler too – only use reusable dishes if you’re planning to stay in the dining hall or promptly return them to the dish drop-off area. In the last 11 months, RA has replaced 1,000 plastic cups, and over 7,500 pieces of flatware since September.

Many of you also shared lots of ideas on how RA could encourage more sustainable behavior. Thanks for your ideas and keep them coming. In the meantime, here are a few changes already underway, and some more that may lie ahead.

– Coffee is cheaper with a reusable mug! This policy was already in place, but needed some clarification with Spangler staff members and students alike. When you purchase coffee using a disposable cup, you pay $1.45 for a small, $1.75 for a medium and $1.90 for a large. When you purchase coffee using a reusable mug of any size, you will be charged $1.45 – the price of a small.

– Placement of disposables in Spangler: Until recently, plastic utensils were available inside the dining hall – unfortunately, when Spangler is jam packed at rush hour, people grabbed whatever utensils were in front of them (often using disposables when dining in Spangler). As of March 2009, RA moved all plastic utensils to the hallway outside Spangler.

– For here or to go?? Certain items (e.g., sushi) used to always be served in a plastic container. From now on, staff at every food station will first ask students whether they are ordering “for here” or “to go.” If you take your food to go in a plastic container, remember you can recycle it (just eat all the food first!)

– Pricing oatmeal/soup according to weight: Right now students can buy soup and oatmeal in small, medium & large ONLY if they use a Styrofoam container, whereas if they use a ceramic bowl, they pay for a large. To encourage people who want small portions to use ceramic, RA is considering charging by weight for these items.
– Order more reusable dishes: so we stop running out of real plates and cups at rush hour.

– Rearranging dish/container options inside the cafeteria to make reusables more easily accessible than disposables

– Providing plastic cups (these can be recycled) as an alternative to Styrofoam for cold beverages (would be placed by the water/ice machines in Spangler and The Grille).

If you have any other ideas or comments, please email me at, or contact your section Green Rep.

Extra reading on the topic:

Evelyne White is this year’s HBS campus green representative. She is pursuing her MBA at HBS and is an alumna of Oberlin College (2004) where she studied Politics and Environmental Science.