Originally created 05/14/00

Cup makers battle for buyers



In the past two decades, powerful executives and politicians have spent a lot of time and money debating a seemingly simple question: Does coated paper or polystyrene plastic make a better disposable cup?

But behind that question are some pretty complex issues. Billions of dollars, thousands of jobs and the overall health of the planet are potentially at stake. And ultimately, cup makers say, you - the individual consumer - are answering it.

Consider this: Sometimes a cup is more than just a cup.

In this case, each kind of cup represents an industry that depends on every single sale.

On one side, there is the paper industry. It grows and cuts trees, processes wood and sells paper to the cup makers, who sell cups to vendors, who sell the cups to you. On the other side, there is the plastics industry. It takes oil and processes it, turns it into plastic and sells it to cup makers, who sell cups to venders, who sell the cups to you.

So by choosing what kind of cup you drink from, you are choosing which industry is going to get your money, who is going to be employed and what will happen to the environment.

Neither industry wants the other to dominate the cup business - or the bag business, or any other business that offers you a paper or plastic choice. So, both spend and spend and spend to extoll the virtues of their products and to lobby lawmakers to pass regulations that favor them.

"When you're talking about someone's livelihood," says Ann Mularoni, a spokeswoman for Mason, Mich.-based Dart Container Corp., "they're going to do what they have to do."

Little public data exist to show how many of each kind of cup are being produced. Most of those statistics are a secret. But more and more cups are being made out of plastic - which, for now, is generally cheaper to make - cup manufacturers and industry watchers say.

Billions and billions

Every day, 252 employees at Sweetheart Cup Co. in Augusta produce more than 4.2 million disposable, polystyrene cups. That's nearly 1.5 billion cups a year - one cup for one-fourth of all the people on the planet.

And that's just one factory at one company.

Owings Mills, Md.-based Sweetheart has eight other cup factories in the United States. Add that to the 30 or so other disposable cup companies in this country - many with multiple factories - and you end up with hundreds of billions of cups a year.

And that doesn't include cup factories in other countries.

Polystyrene cups - sometimes Styrofoam cups, although Styrofoam is a trade name for a plastic product made by Dow Chemical - are marked with a "PS" on the cup bottom.

"You can listen to the pros and cons for each side, and they each have their points," local Sweetheart factory Manager Brett McGuire said. "But we make what the customer wants to buy, not what we want to sell."

In the beginning

The disposable cup is an early 20th-century invention.

Lawrence Luellen was among the first to tinker with the concept. He believed a clean, single-use cup was more sanitary than sharing a common drinking container, which transmitted diseases and bacteria. So he made a cone-shaped disposable cup out of rolled paper and paraffin.

Mr. Luellen teamed up with trade newspaperman Hugh Moore and started the Individual Drinking Cup Co. in 1910, which was renamed Dixie Cup Co. - after a line of dolls - in 1943.

Dixie Cup grew and grew and grew.

And so did the disposable cup industry - especially as Americans learned to throw more and more things away. By the 1940s, people were not only drinking water out of paper cups but also were getting soft drinks and coffee in them, too.

In 1947, Lily Tulip Co. - now Sweetheart Cup Co. - opened a factory in Augusta. In addition to cups, the company made other paper containers - milk cartons and ice cream tubs.

In the late 1960s, plastic products started to appear. The chemically produced material basically made from oil had a variety of uses. And in 1970, Lily Tulip started making plastic cup lids.

By the mid-1980s, Lily Tulip started manufacturing plastic cups, too. It made more and more plastic cups until 1988, when the Augusta cup factory stopped producing paper cups and turned to polystyrene.

The factory

Inside the Sweetheart factory on Wrightsboro Road, cups fly through clear pneumatic tubes like pingpong balls in a Lotto machine. The odor of burning plastic and ammonia fills the air.

"You always smell polystyrene," Mr. McGuire says, grinning.

He shows off his factory - the extruder, the printer, the assembler - with pride. The machines heat plastic beads to 400 degrees, inject the melted substance with carbon dioxide to give the plastic a foamy feel, stretch it into long sheets, cut it and mold it into cups.

As he speaks, Mr. McGuire drinks from a plastic Sweetheart cup.

He is a die-hard plastics man. He doesn't believe in what he considers environmentalist propaganda about how bad plastic is for the environment. He doesn't go for all the Earth Day stuff.

"I think it was a bunch of nonsense," he says.

He holds up a scientific study to prove it.

"Read the data," he says.

The environmentalists

The scientific evidence is not so clear, however. Both the paper and the plastic industry have spent millions on research. Both have studies to back up their claims. Both want to convince you they are better.

But throughout the 1980s and 1990s, environmentalists tended to side with the paper industry. Paper, many special interest groups contended, was a natural product created with a natural process. Paper could be recycled, they said. The process to make plastic, however, hurt the ozone, they argued. And plastic, once it was made, was hard to reuse and get rid of, they added.

So environmental groups urged lawmakers to ban chlorofluorocarbons, which gave plastic its foamy feel but also were supposedly among the worst environmental offenders. And they asked for other regulations that also increased the cost of producing plastic containers.

They pressured corporate America to adopt practices they considered more environmentally friendly. McDonald's was a big target. After lots of public pressure, the fast-food company stopped serving burgers in polystyrene containers - what the industry calls clam shells. The containers didn't bio-degrade, environmentalists said.

The decision cost the plastic-container makers millions in lost sales.

The plastic industry now has its own campaign to convince the public that its product isn't that bad. Plastic, it says, also can be recycled. It has the American Plastics Council and the Polystyrene Packaging Council, with three full-time employees.

And now that the 1990s are over, some industry followers believe that the public doesn't care as much about environmental issues as they once did. Consumers mostly care about price and convenience, they say.

"The American consumer, particularly on environmental issues, talks a very good game," says John Burke, president of the Foodservice & Packaging Institute in Arlington, Va. "But when they get to the shelf and make their purchasing decision, if the 100 percent recycled product costs more than the virgin material, they are going to buy the virgin material every single time because their money and their mouth are not in the same place."

The bottom line

A cup's price is dependent on the cost of the raw material it is made from - oil and paper. When the price of oil is low, plastic cup makers are happy. When the price of paper is low, paper cup makers are happy.

Many cup makers hedge their bets by producing both products. They up the ratio of either paper or plastic based on the market. Other companies, however, let everything ride on paper or plastic.

Contrary to Mr. Burke's conclusion, however, some people really prefer to press paper to their lips instead of plastic; and others, the reverse.

Pam Holmes has become something of a cup expert at Java Hut, a corner coffee shop on Reynolds Street. She is Java Hut's barista, the equivalent of a coffee shop bartender.

"I notice cups," Ms. Holmes says.

Hot drinks go in paper cups, she says. They seem be cooler to the touch. Sometimes, however, they leave a yucky white residue, she adds, pointing to the corners of her mouth. Cold drinks go in clear plastic cups. Those cups seem to last longer. Cold drinks tend to sit around, she says.

Java Hut doesn't use foam cups - they give coffee a funky taste, she says.

So do the customers want paper or plastic?

"They would like us to use mugs," Ms. Holmes says.

Reach Frank Witsil at 823-3352, or fwitsil@augustachronicle.com.