On the Hill, even the kind of cup you prefer can be a weapon on the political battleground.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., tried banning Styrofoam cups and other items made from the chemical polystyrene from cafeterias throughout the House side (the Democratic-controlled Senate already bans such products on its side) through an amendment to the 2013 legislative-branch appropriations bill.
It failed on a vote of 178 to 229 on the House floor Friday.
“Congress should lead by example, and it’s the wrong example for us to only be using Styrofoam cups and plastic forks and so on that are not biodegradable, that are harmful to the environment,” Moran said.
It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing battle over the recycling habits of Congress. More than a decade ago, lawmakers pushed for more robust recycling after a number of environmental groups blasted Congress for having an informal program with questionable results.
After becoming speaker in 2007, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., introduced the Green the Capitol initiative, which revamped the House with, among other things, new lights and biodegradable cups and utensils, all meant to reduce the Capitol’s carbon footprint.
But when Republicans regained control of the House, they nixed Green the Capitol and brought the Styrofoam cups back in 2011. House Administration Committee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., cited the House chief administrative officer’s findings that the greening program increased costs by $475,000 a year while providing negligible environmental benefits.
“It is neither cost effective nor energy efficient to continue the program,” Lungren said in a statement last year.
Plus, there were complaints from both sides of the isle about biodegradable utensils that barely worked.
The reintroduction of Styrofoam didn’t go over well with some Democratic lawmakers, nine of whom sent a letter to Republican leaders charging that the cups are dangerous and contain a “potential human carcinogen.” Moran led an unsuccessful fight in 2011 to get Styrofoam out of House cafeterias, with a vote that fell largely along party lines.
“If it sounds like we’re being environmentally sensitive, then it’s a ‘no’ vote if you’re a Republican,” Moran said.
Lungren said that Democrats should take into account a GOP program that burns waste across the Capitol at local facilities and converts it into energy.
"We were just starting [the waste-to-energy program] when we had this debate last year," Lungren said. "It now exists. Styrofoam, as well as everything else, is part of the burn."
Lungren also added that Democratic claims that Styrofoam is a carcinogen are unsubstantiated.
Government researchers say one of the main components of Styrofoam, a compound called styrene, may cause cancer in workers who breathe high levels of it during manufacturing. Styrene is also found in cigarette smoke. The National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, said in a report last year that inhaling styrene fumes is the most dangerous route of exposure. There's no evidence that using Styrofoam in any form could cause cancer.