The History of Styrofoam Cups

Many consider paper a better alternative to foam cups.
Many consider paper a better alternative to foam cups. (Image: coffee cup image by Leticia Wilson from Fotolia.com)

Many foam products, including the infamous McDonalds Big Mac container and ubiquitous foam cups, have been used throughout the latter half of the 20th century. There is a misnomer; the common foam cup is actually made from polystyrene, not Styrofoam.

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Polystyrene Origins

Polystyrene, the prominent material in foam cups, was first created by Eduard Simon, a German scientist, who isolated the polymer from storax, a tree resin. He named the plastic-like substance styrol oxide, though its creation actually does not require oxidation. In 1949, Fritz Stastny, another German engineer, created polystyrene beads that can be molded into useful shapes, including the foam cup.

Foam Cups

Foam cups trace their roots to the Koppers Company, which in 1970 filed a patent for a plastic foam cup with walls that do not exceed twice the diameter of the foamed beads used to compose it. This foam had excellent insulation properties, and it was adopted as the material of choice for dispensing hot drinks.

Environmental Concerns

A 1986 Environmental Protection Agency report named the process of creating polystyrene as the fifth largest contributor of hazardous waste. Recycling facilities have been built since the early 1990s to properly dispose of foam material.

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