The Red Solo Cup should become a relic of the past

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

Robert L. Hulseman, the inventor of the Red Solo Cup, passed away on Dec. 21, 2016.  

A little over a week later, on New Year’s Eve, my friends and I attended a party at a bar in Philadelphia. The atmosphere was lively, the DJ was bumping and the open bar was a masterpiece, except for one aspect: instead of using glass cups that you could easily wash and reuse, the bar — which housed well over 500 people that evening — used disposable plastic cups.

“How many drinks have you had tonight?” I asked some guy standing next to the bar.

“About five so far,” he told me.

“Let’s imagine that everyone in this room had as many drinks tonight as you,” I responded. “So, multiply, five drinks by 500 people. That’s about 2,500 cups. How does that make you feel?”

His face went solemn: “Sad.”

Plastic cups, and Red Solo Cups in particular, are the classic symbol of a rager — a staple of any worthwhile party, the holy grail of kegs and absolutely essential for any game of pong. But unfortunately, as necessary as they may seem to ensuring the legacy of any top tier fraternity, Red Solo Cups are just plain awful for the environment.

Given the alarming progression of global climate change and the election of a U.S. President who claims it a hoax, perhaps it’s in our best interest to pay attention to even the smallest details that could be affecting our environment, including the use of Red Solo Cups and disposable plastic and styrofoam items in general.                                                            

The two materials used to make most disposable drinkware — plastic and styrofoam — are a polymer called polystyrene. Polystyrene is usually the go-to material for manufacturers since it’s both easy and cheap to produce as well as efficient to use, a golden combination. But the strong chemical bonds that form to make polystyrene durable likewise make the plastic cups extremely difficult to decompose.

According to Metro Waste Authority, the time it takes for disposable plastic cups to decompose is upwards of 450 years — 436 more than the 14 country rockstar Toby Keith suggests in his song, “Red Solo Cup.”

The toxins from the materials in the cups could also have negative effects on health in both humans and animals. Under certain conditions such as heat, polystyrene can leak toxic materials — like benzene, an organic chemical found in crude oil — into food and water. Although the effects of consuming benzene through food and water are currently unknown, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry reports that exposure to the chemical can lead to blood issues, problems with reproduction and even cancer.

Several cities have taken measures to outlaw certain forms of polystyrene. New York City recently banned styrofoam, which is chemically the same as plastic cups but physically manipulated. The ban was reportedly based both on the toxic hazards of the compound and its difficulty to be recycled.

Likewise, the Red Solo Cup, which might seem like an easily recyclable object, isn’t always accepted at centers.

R. Ward Allebach, a Pitt professor who teaches sustainability courses, informed me that Red Solo Cups are usually difficult to recycle due to carcinogenic materials which include styrene. Styrene, when melted down, releases toxins that can be especially dangerous.

Professor Allebach said that even if the cups were sent to a recycling center, they’d likely be sorted out and taken to a landfill, which also isn’t ideal. Landfills are often sealed, making it so the hazardous materials dumped there can inhibit the breakdown of objects, including plastic — meaning what might take a short amount of time to decompose in a natural environment can take decades longer in a landfill.  

Pitt is making strides in its efforts to become more sustainable, ranking as one of the top 353 Most Environmentally Friendly Colleges in the United States and Canada in 2015 by the Princeton Review. An accolade received after making several efforts to conserve energy and create less waste through updated lighting and increased recycling bins, as noted by the 2013 Report on Sustainability. But only about 44 percent of students actually live on Pitt’s ‘green’ campus, while the remaining off-campus and commuter students are left to the task of figuring out how to be environmentally responsible on their own.

For Pitt party-throwers who rely on the Red Solo Cup to encase the drink of the night, there are a few environmentally conscious options students can pursue.

Since plastic cups aren’t normally recyclable, Professor Allebach suggested students focus on trying to reduce and reuse. The cups are fairly durable, so a washing with warm water and soap followed by a thorough drying means students could reuse the cups for several weekends in a row. Or make your get-togethers BYOC — bring your own cup — or limit guests to one cup only if you prefer the reducing method.

Solo has even partnered with Terracycle, a company that makes its products from reused waste, in a program that collects Solo cups for recycling and even offers incentives and cash rewards based on how much you send in to them.

While we might not be able to rely on businesses like Solo to turn completely to safer and more environmentally friendly drinkware, perhaps we can make small changes ourselves. Right now, the best way for us to promote a greener Pittsburgh and a greener world is through communication and action.

The inventor of the Red Solo Cup has passed, and perhaps it’s time for the excessive waste of his product to go too.

Julia primarily writes about politics and social issues for The Pitt News.

Write to Julia at jla85@pitt.edu.

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