Dart Container Corp., maker of the red Solo cup ubiquitous at picnics and college frat parties, has annual sales of $3 billion and a workforce of 13,000, according to its website.
Earth Cups Inc., the Long Island upstart that aims to bite Solo’s market share with a line of eco-conscious degradable cups, employs founder Michael Medvedev, a college junior, along with a partner, Peter Frelinghuysen. It is based in Medvedev’s mother’s garage in Albertson, where in April a truck deposited 100,000 pieces of product, filling much of the garage with boxes of cups stacked to the ceiling. Since then Medvedev has sold 20,000 cups, making it possible to walk in the garage but not to park a vehicle.
Medvedev, 21, a tennis standout who graduated from the Wheatley School in Old Westbury in 2018 before heading to Williams College in Massachusetts, said he was struck, after arriving, by the quantity of Solo cups strewn post-party in dormitory courtyards around campus.
“If it’s an issue at Williams, imagine how big an issue it is at all the college campuses,” he said. According to the Earth Cups website, “only 8% of plastic waste gets recycled in the U.S….500 BILLION plastic cups go to landfills each year.”
He tried collecting the cups he saw and considered pushing reusable mugs as an alternative, but found pickup not scalable and mugs not practical. He opted instead to take on Solo by selling his own brand of disposables. Earth Cups — which look and feel like clear plastic but are made from a corn-based substance built from polylactic acid polymers, or PLA — break down in 90 days when industrially composted, he said.
Analysts valued the market for disposable cups at $11.88 billion last year, and Solo’s parent company, Dart, sits somewhere near the top of this market.
Its Solo cups are made from high impact polystyrene, a hard petrochemical substance that is not compostable. They are, in theory, recyclable, but facilities that accept polystyrene are so limited that Dart’s website suggests mailing cups to a recycling company in New Jersey.
Plastic litter may persist in the natural environment for hundreds of years, researchers say. Additives to plastics may leach out, and as plastic breaks down, degraded by the sun’s ultraviolet rays, oxidization and other means, it may get eaten by animals and enter the food chain.
Dart spokeswoman Margo Burrage declined an interview request but said in a statement that the company recognizes “recycling rates, access to recycling and recycling infrastructure can be better. We want them to be better and are continuously working to improve them. But the reality is that far more people have access to polystyrene recycling than commercial composting, so recycling is still the better option at this time.”
Marketing to frats
Medvedev said he spent in the low five figures for his first cup purchase, ordered from a factory in China. Medvedev, Frelinghuysen and Medvedev’s mother provided the funds.
Earth Cups’ website sells a 50-pack of cups for $10; they come in a compostable bag also made from a corn-based material.
The company markets online with hashtags like #stopsolo and photos of college students drinking from the cups at parties and clubs.
Medvedev said his cups were in all three liquor stores near campus in tiny Williamstown. The company also has a presence at the University of Virginia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University and Cornell University, with plans to expand using student “ambassadors.”
Fraternities figure into the plan because “they’re the biggest users of Solo cups,” Medvedev said.
One of the biggest early sales was 2,000 cups to Sigma Chi at Cornell. This was a trial run for the chapter; typically, the 30 brothers and their guests use 500 to 1,000 cups a week, said Nick Graziano, a 20-year-old sophomore who is the chapter’s social chairman. Sigma Chi paid about 15 cents per cup, three times more than they would have for Solo cups.
Graziano said the premium for an Earth Cup disposable was worthwhile. “In terms of strength, they’re just as strong as any other cup we’ve used.” Knowing the brothers’ empties are “not going to sit in a landfill and will actually decompose is really interesting to me,” he said. “I’m interested in sustainability.”
But does a cup made from corn really minimize environmental harms more than one made from petrochemicals?
If the ultimate standard for harm minimization is whether a manufactured thing can be efficiently reused or recycled, both products fail, said David Tonjes, a Stony Brook University professor who studies solid waste management.
The deeper analysis is “complicated,” he said.
Composting vs. landfill
Compostability is not an unalloyed good and composting is hard to do. Composting PLA requires pile temperatures of at least 150 degrees sustained for days; generally those conditions can only be attained at an industrial site, not a backyard heap. That poses practical problems because many industrial composting sites, including those on Long Island, accept only yard waste, Tonjes said. PLA displays remarkable persistence outside of compost conditions — in sensitive marine environments, for instance.
At the same time, the persistence of the polystyrene in Solo cups is not an unalloyed bad, especially if the material is kept inert in a landfill. “When things fall apart they can release chemicals,” Tonjes said.
Toting up all these variables, “the impact difference between a Solo cup and a PLA cup is tiny,” he said.
Medvedev, though, is steaming forward. “We’re offering a better product — maybe not the best product, but in the long run we will find a plastic that can biodegrade in your back yard,” he said. Along the way, he said, his company will succeed by simply “raising awareness” of the environmental issues he hopes it will one day solve.
Earth Cups will soon outgrow his mother’s garage. He talked recently with a fulfillment center in New Jersey to warehouse and ship product, letting him focus on sales and marketing. He said he will donate any profits to environmental organizations.
Last month he placed his second cup order, significantly larger than the first; it should arrive in September, just as millions of thirsty young Americans head back to college campuses.