“Now a red Solo cup is the best receptacle/For barbecues, tailgates, fairs and festivals,” sings Toby Keith in “Red Solo Cup.” That’s right — this cheap plastic cup is such a cultural icon there’s a song dedicated to it. Unfortunately, Keith makes some factual errors. He claims a red Solo cup decomposes in 14 years; the reality is closer to 500.
Solo cups are made of #6 plastic (polystyrene). Although it may not look like it, the material is chemically identical to styrofoam. And just like a styrofoam cup, you can’t recycle your red Solo cup at Stanford. A process for recycling #6 plastic exists, but most recycling centers don’t offer it because it’s economically inefficient. Recycling is a market, after all.
After you throw your Solo cup away, it heads to a landfill, and during its half a millenium of decomposition time, it leaches toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil. Exposure to the main chemicals that come out of polystyrene, benzene and styrene, damages human nervous systems as well as liver and reproductive function. People who work around landfills are especially at risk, as are animals that accidentally ingest the substances.
Aside from the health risks, there’s also the problem of pure garbage volume. Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet produce a quarter of the world’s trash. It’s difficult for authorities to decide where to put this growing quantity of waste, so it often gets trucked to landfills near low-income communities or even shipped overseas. Single-use disposable items like Solo cups play a significant role in the waste problem.
Students for a Sustainable Stanford decided to take action to reign in our campus’s Solo cup habit. If you’ve ever seen the aftermath of a frat party or a tailgate, you can imagine the problem I’m talking about. Row houses, especially fraternity houses, throw some of the biggest parties on campus, and upperclass parties also set an example for freshmen. We figured that if we could initiate a culture change around Solo cups on the row, we might be able to set Stanford on a path toward lasting change.
We contacted all the row house Kitchen Managers (KMs) we could find to ask them about cups in their houses. A few row houses like Columbae and Xanadu already eschewed Solo cups in favor of compostable, recyclable or reusable options, which gave us hope that change was possible. Reusable cups are the most sustainable option, but we realize they can be difficult to use for large parties so we started by encouraging compostables. We talked to every KM who responded to our emails, then offered them 150 free starter compostable cups plus information on how to re-stock. (You can purchase compostable cups in the same size as Solo cups for a comparable price on Amazon if you buy in bulk. The Axe & Palm also sells sleeves of compostable cups … and we’ve heard anecdotally that these still work great for beer pong.)
Several houses, including Phi Psi and Sigma Nu, have already made the switch. Don’t let your house be the last one. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more.
Jasmine Kerber ’20