Austin-based ThunderCloud Subs says it's phasing out cups made of polystyrene, commonly referred to as Styrofoam. The announcement comes after the nonprofit Environment Texas petitioned the sandwich chain to make the change.
“We had asked our members which local businesses they’d most like to see stop using polystyrene," Environment Texas' executive director, Luke Metzger, said. "And we heard over and over again, people say that they really wanted ThunderCloud to take action, and that they were disappointed to see ThunderCloud using Styrofoam in some of their restaurants.”
ThunderCloud spokesperson Brenda Thompson said the company had already been planning to phase out the cups.
"They phased out Styrofoam completely several years ago and their supplier subsequently was unable to provide a certain size of cups, and so they began using foam cups again with a plan to get rid of them completely," she said. "There will be none by the end of the year at the latest."
Thompson added that the company has a long history of environmental consciousness, including recycling before the city required it and using solar power.
Environment Texas said the problem with polystyrene is that it doesn’t biodegrade; it breaks down into micropellets that are ingested by hundreds of species of wildlife, including most sea turtles and almost half of all species of seabird and marine mammals.
It's part of the larger problem of plastic pollution getting attention lately. The largest known mass of plastic polluting the Earth's oceans is one in the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas. A whale found beached in Thailand last week had ingested 17 pounds of plastic.
Metzger said Environment Texas has been lobbying Austin City Council members and the city's Zero Waste Advisory Commission to take a small step toward reducing the amount of plastic thrown in the trash, 8 million tons of which ends up in the ocean each year.
“Specifically, what we want is the city to pass a requirement that restaurants only provide single-use plastic straws on request and not just as a default," Metzger said. "Just like during the drought, you don’t automatically get a glass of water; you only get it upon request.”
Metzger is also calling on the Texas Legislature to repeal a law passed in 1991 that prohibits cities from banning Styrofoam.
“Certainly since 1991 the technology has improved so there are many different alternatives to Styrofoam," he said, "in addition to just more consciousness from the public to attempt to reuse and bring their own reusable cup when they can.”
In the meantime, Environment Texas will be encouraging other businesses to follow the lead of ThunderCloud Subs in voluntarily ending their use of polystyrene.
Volunteers will be going door-to-door this summer, as Metzger put it, "educating the public about the problem and why we need to ban polystyrene.”
This post has been updated with a comment from ThunderCloud Subs.