This Week @ UCSD
Top Stories Print this story Print Forward to a Friend Forward

Paper or Plastic?
Students Tackle Difficult Questions in Sustainability Seminar

By Ioana Patringenaru | November 27, 2006

Paper or plastic? Well, actually, when it comes to cups for drinks, Styrofoam might be better. That’s the conclusion reached by a group of students enrolled this quarter in a senior seminar on sustainability at UCSD.

The course aimed to teach students about sustainability while giving them opportunities for hands-on learning.

“It’s about helping make our own environment more sustainable and learning in the process,” said Lisa Shaffer, executive editor of UCSD's Environment and Sustainability Initiative and an assistant director at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Shaffer co-taught the class with Charles Kennel, Scripps’ former director, who currently heads UCSD’s Environment and Sustainability Initiative.

“Sustainability starts at home,” said Kennel. “The way we run our campus will be our showcase.”

The team of students that looked at recycling bins, with their professor, Lisa Shaffer. From left to right: Carol Feucht, Nadia Nashi, Sakura Evans, Shaffer, Peter Turner and Camilo Ramirez.

The eight students enrolled in the seminar heard from several faculty guest speakers. They also researched and put together reports. On Nov. 20, they made recommendations and presented their findings at the Eucalyptus Point Conference Center.

Five students looked at recycling bins on campus and how they could be made more user-friendly. Three students looked at how paper and Styrofoam cups impact the environment. Housing and Dining Services had a keen interest in this topic, Shaffer said. The department goes through 1.3 million cups a year, most of them made of plastic foam.

To make their determination, the three students considered a wide range of factors, including cost, waste and the raw materials and energy that went into making the cups. Most of their data came from two studies. One was sponsored by the Polystyrene Packaging Council, but had been peer reviewed.

According to the studies, it takes fewer materials and less energy to make foam cups. Making foam or paper cups puts out a comparable amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the students found. But when you take into consideration that most paper cups come with a paper sleeve, paper cups actually produce more emissions, the students said. By weight, foam cups produce far less waste than paper; by volume, the two produce roughly the same amount. Also, foam cups are much cheaper than paper, $23 per 1000 versus $42 per 1000, the students found.

The team of students that looked at paper and Styrofoam cups, with Alan Moloney, associate director of Housing and Dining services and Shaffer. From left to right: Moloney, Shaffer, Tim Haag, Ryan Maloney and Jacob Ward.

“Foam is better than paper,” said student Tim Haag, who confessed he still had trouble accepting that conclusion.

The caveat is that foam takes about 20,000 years to degrade, he said. But at least foam is inert, so it does not release toxic substances into the environment. Housing and Dining should create more incentives for students who bring their own cups, said Haag. They currently get a discount on their drinks, but cool rewards, like iTunes downloads or an iPod might be more attractive, said Ryan Maloney, who worked with Haag and Jacob Ward on the report. There are no simple answers to questions about the environment, Maloney said. 

The presentation earned good reviews from the audience. Students did a great job at looking at the whole life cycle of foam and paper cups, Kennel said. “This information is very helpful,” said Alan Moloney, associate director of Housing and Dining Services. “I definitely got educated today.”

Meanwhile, students who looked at recycling bins also had a few things to say. UCSD should place uniform signs on all recycling bins, said student Nadia Nashi. The campus also should raise awareness about recycling, said classmate Carol Feucht. Many don’t know that recycling bins will take paper, plastic and glass, even though they may carry signs that say otherwise. The campus also should do a better job at distributing bins throughout campus and place them at more visible locations in dining halls, said Sakura Evans, who worked with Nashi and Feucht on the project. More bins also are needed in classrooms and lecture halls, the students said.

UCSD currently recycles 30 percent of its trash and wants to do an even better job, said Assistant Superintendent Alonso Noble, who has become the recycling guru in Facilities Management. The campus’ goal is to recycle 50 percent of its trash. “I don’t want to be embarrassed,” Noble said. “I want to stand toe to toe with other campuses.”

Subscribe Contact Us Got News UCSD News

UCSD University Communications

9500 Gilman Drive MC0938
La Jolla, CA 92093-0938