Feel a little more virtuous after a party by recycling your Solo cups or finding a more sustainable alternative!

solocups.jpg Do you agree that Solo cups are a must-have at parties? Do you have many fond (albeit blurry) memories of beer pong and drunken political debates and botched pick-up attempts while holding a red plastic cup in your hand? If the answer is yes, and you have never heard Toby Keith’s epic song “Red Solo Cup,” stop reading this article right now and watch the video (fair warning: there is some choice language). It does not matter if you don’t usually like country music. You will not regret it – which is not something you can always say after a night of downing your favorite beverage out of a red Solo cup. While Solo cups may be a friend to some, they are definitely not a friend to the environment. Solo cups are made with plastic and will sit in landfills until Kenny G becomes a cultural icon again (wait… that already happened… thanks a lot Katie Perry). The point is that Solo cups should be recycled if possible. If you cannot find a way to recycle them in your community, consider washing them and reusing them. You can also invest in reusable or compostable cups for your next party.

What are Solo cups?

Solo cups are a registered trademark of the Solo Cup Company. People are most familiar with the tall, wide plastic cups that are white on the inside and colored on the outside (red is the most popular). However, the Solo Cup Company also makes disposable plates and bowls. At least one thing Toby Keith says about Solo cups is not true. They are not, in fact, decomposable. Solo cups are made with a type of plastic called polystyrene, also known as PS or by the recycling number 6. Plenty of other things are made with #6 plastic, including toys, food containers and jewel cases. Styrofoam is a form of #6 plastic called expanded polystyrene (or EPS). However, polystyrene is not widely recycled. Since polystyrene is made from petroleum products, it does not break down over time. In addition, if your plastic Solo cups go into an incinerator, they can give off gases that are harmful to human health. That is why it is smart to keep Solo cups and other types of plastic cups out of the waste stream whenever possible.

How to recycle Solo cups

TerraCycle, an amazing company that recycles all kinds of products, will take Solo cups. To recycle Solo cups through their nationwide program, you will need to follow the detailed instructions on their website. They involve signing up for TerraCycle’s recycling program and mailing the cups to their headquarters. You may be able to recycle Solo cups through a local recycling program. It is rare that municipal recycling programs take #6 plastic at the curb, but there are a few places that do. Ann Arbor and Yorktown, New York, are examples. Both places ask residents to rinse out plastic food and beverage containers before placing them in the recycling bin. It is more likely that your local recycling center will accept #6 plastic items, including Solo cups. Just check their requirements carefully. There are several recycling centers in the Tulsa area that accept plastic, but only one will take #6 plastic. In addition, some recyclers only want bottles, tubs or containers with very specific shapes.

Reusable and compostable alternatives to Solo cups

Solo cups are pretty sturdy, so you can collect them at the end of your party and wash them all by hand. Once they are dry, stack them up and keep them for your next bash. A company called Red Cup Living makes completely reusable plastic party cups that look a lot like Solo cups. Their cups are dishwasher safe, making them easy to clean after even a large gathering. They come in a range of colors and sizes. You can even buy reusable lids and straws to go with them. All their products are manufactured in the United States from BPA- and phthalate-free plastic. If you are not totally attached to the Solo cup look, try using compostable cups at future parties. There are lots of options out there. That being said, it is very important to be thoughtful about which compostable cups you buy. Most compostable cups will not break down in your composter at home because it does not get hot enough. That means your cups need to go to a commercial composting facility. However, not all compostable cups work well even in commercial composting operations. Different cups are made with different materials, and some decompose better than others. The best way to find out which cups will break down in your community’s commercial composting facility is to call them and ask what brands work best in their system. In addition, keep in mind that compostable cups will not break down in landfills because most products do not break down in landfills. I remember this vividly from a special presentation someone made in my 2nd grade class. A local volunteer brought in a newspaper that had been sitting in a landfill for decades. Other than being a bit damp (and a lot smelly), it looked as good as new. You could easily read the articles printed on the front page. If you want your compostable cups to actually break down, you will need to have a separate receptacle for them and send them to a commercial composting facility. Many places take the cups for little or no charge. Plan to drop them off the next day – or whenever your hangover subsides.