"What's the big deal? Let's just recycle, right?"
Wrong. It's a common misconception that red plastic cups can be recycled. Many people are (understandably) misled by the three-arrow triangle with a #6 on the bottom of these cups. Red party cups are made from polystyrene which is too dangerous and economically inefficient to recycle.
"But Toby Keith says they decompose in 14 years."
Wrong. Oh Toby...! Plastic cups take 450-1000 years to break down in landfill or the ocean, where their toxic chemicals disproportionately harm minority communities, low income communities, and wildlife. We are talking millions of tons of plastic each year...
Here's the Nitty Gritty: The iconic red party cup wreaks havoc on our planet. Plastic party cups are made from polystyrene (plastic #6). Each cup takes 450 -1,000 years to break down into microplastics in landfill and in the ocean. When polystyrene breaks down in a landfill, it leaches toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil. Exposure to the main chemicals that come out of polystyrene — styrene and benzene — can damage human nervous systems as well as liver and reproductive function. In fact, styrene is classified as a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency and benzene is classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. To make matters worse, those who are most at-risk are people who work and live near these toxic landfills, meaning the severe health risks disproportionately affect minority communities in the United States. For example, in Los Angeles, 1.2 million people live within two miles from toxic waste facilities. 91% of these people belong to minority communities. This means reducing your plastic usage isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a racial justice issue, too.
Animals are also at risk of accidentally ingesting these toxic plastic fragments. Scientists have found fragments of plastic in 86% of all sea turtles and 43% of all marine mammals. When their bellies are full of plastic, animals are unable to digest the sustenance they need to live, and as a result, they starve. These plastics are carried through the food chain and eventually may be ingested by humans. According to researchers, humans may ingest between 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles each year.
Unfortunately, these plastic cups cannot be recycled, so they are destined for the landfill or the ocean. The reason plastic #6 is banned from most U.S. recycling facilities is because of the toxic chemicals that emerge during incineration. Furthermore, there is no market for plastic #6. This means that are too few buyers for recycled polystyrene to make it economically efficient enough for facilities to bother with recycling. China used to buy seven million tons of plastic waste each year. In January of 2018, China put the kibosh on importing plastic waste. According to the EPA, Americans discard around 33.5 million tons of plastic per year. Only a dismal 9.5% of it actually gets recycled.
We use these red plastic cups for 15 minutes and then they are on earth for 450+ years. At your next social gathering, offer reusable SUPCUPs to your guests and start putting an end to the vicious and dangerous cycle of single-use plastic consumption.