By Sariah J Stewart
The Red Solo Cup has become an emblem of American popular culture and a household necessity for friendly gatherings. However, the cups are detrimental to the environment.
Solo’s production plant in Urbana, Illinois produces around 7.4 billion plastic cups a year: including clear polyethylene terephthalate (PET) cups, plastic cups for commercial use, and the classic colored polystyrene solo cups.
Polystyrene is categorized under plastic 6. It takes 450-1000 years to decompose, breaking down into its smallest form as microplastics that fill the ocean. Even when recycled Plastic 6 poses many complications, releasing harmful chemicals (like styrene) when heated. Many recycling facilities are unequipped to accommodate plastic 6 and end up forwarding these plastics to the landfill, rendering the recycling efforts pointless.
The demand for single-use plastic cups increases in summertime when used for holiday parties, barbecues, picnics, pool parties, and other summer activities. These outdoor activities, built from an appreciation for the beautiful spring and summer weather, have become especially damaging to the environment. The reputation of the cup as the ultimate party maker has been pushed by SOLO, with excellent marketing invitations to “SOLObrate good times together” with the cup they claim is the “go-to connector for food, fun, and friendships.” Public figures echo this portrait. Renowned country artist Toby Keith sings the cup is the “best receptacle for barbecues, tailgates, fairs, and festivals” in his song dedicated to the object “Red Solo Cup.” The lyric continues, “
you, sir, do not have a pair of testicles, if you prefer drinkin’ from glass,” shaming those who choose other cups. “Let’s have a party. I love you, red solo cup (What) I lift you up Proceed to party (party)“
Keith won the CMA Video of the Year in 2021 for his ‘home-video’ style piece depicting a typical rowdy house party overcrowded with red solo cups. Honoring of the cup this way highlights the invisibility of the harmful consequences of single-use disposal cups.
Red Solo cups are in the spotlight on college campuses, has become the foundation of the frat or college house party. Even in the hands of potentially more liberal and environmentally conscious students, the cup is likely to be exploited for the image of ‘coolness’ it holds at college parties.
The cups have become the top choice for the consumption of alcohol, leading to impaired of judgment while under the influence. Taking this into account, we can assume that the likeliness of these cups being properly disposed of is low, even for those who may typically recycle. My experiences on UT Austin’s West Campus, walking streets littered with dozens of these vibrant cups when I walk my dog on weekend mornings, attests to this.
The politics of the cup are even exploited by politicians, used as an “emblem of unpretentious” to demonstrate relatability between the representative and their constituents, setting a precedent for Americans all over the country and contributing to the increase of it’s use.
The detrimental consequences of the production and disposal of polystyrene have been widely known by producers since the 1980s. But the economics of plastic spoke louder. Regulation against such plastics has surfaced in recent years, including total bans from some countries and statewide bans in 3 states. When looking towards the future, we need to follow the example of places that have implemented a ban, such as New York City, and expanded to the whole state starting January 1st of 2021. All 26,000+ restaurants and cafes in NYC have had to become more creative with their packaging, only allowed to use paper or compostable cups and to-go containers. If one of the world’s largest cities was able to rid itself of polystyrene, surely college campuses and the neighborhood barbeques could as well – maybe even the rest of the world.
Solo Cup. “About SOLO: History, Timeline, Press Releases, & Reasons to Celebrate!” Accessed August 14, 2022. https://www.solocup.com/about/.
Board, Gazette Editorial. “EDITORIAL: Polystyrene Foam Ban, Taking Effect Jan. 1, Is Long Overdue.” The Daily Gazette, December 29, 2021, sec. Editorial. https://dailygazette.com/2021/12/29/editorial-polystyrene-foam-ban-taking-effect-jan-1-is-long-overdue/.
Don Dodson. “Urbana’s Solo Cup Churns out 7.4 Billion Cups, Lids a Year.” The News-Gazette. Accessed August 14, 2022. https://www.news-gazette.com/news/urbanas-solo-cup-churns-out-7-4-billion-cups-lids-a-year/article_e493e9b6-4085-5561-bd38-1e1fb3aa345d.html.
Robb, Alice. “How the Red Solo Cup Became a Political Football.” The New Republic, October 31, 2013. https://newrepublic.com/article/115427/red-solo-cup-becomes-fashionable-political-football.
Toby Keith – Red Solo Cup (Unedited Version), 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKZqGJONH68.