The iconic whitecoffeecupand clamshell take-out containers weall know so well are not REALLY Styrofoam, so lets make thatclear from the beginning. That doesnt make the items Im talkingabout any less dangerous, as youll see below, but its importantto clarify what we are talking about.
Thereal Styrofoamwas invented in 1941, is made by DowChemical, and is used exclusively in building insulation, to floatdocks, and in some molds for floral arrangements With very fewexceptions its colored light blue.
The white plastic items we incorrectly refer to as Styrofoam arevery similar yet different. Heres the difference:
The trademarked product called Styrofoam is produced usinga closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam.
The white disposablecoffeecups, coolers, takeoutcontainers, and packing peanuts refers to expanded (notextruded) polystyrene foam, which is sometimes referred toas EPS.
Now that we have cleared that up, heres why the disposablepolystyrene products we can find everywhere arehazardous tohuman and environmental health.
What Is Polystyrene?
Polystyrene is a petroleum-based lightweight plastic made fromstyrene, a synthetic chemical classified as apossible humancarcinogenby the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and theInternational Agency for Research on Cancer; andbenzene, aknown human carcinogen according to the EPA. It is about 95percent air and commonly used to make disposable beveragecontainers, coolers, meat and fish trays in supermarkets,packaging materials, and take-out food containers. You may seethe number 6 surrounded by arecycling symbolor the lettersPS on products made of polystyrene.
6 Reasons to Avoid Use of Polystyrene
The good news is that a slowly growing number of cities aroundthe world are phasing out or banning polystyrene. So far, morethan 100 cities have some type of ban on foam products. Thelatest city on the list isSan Francisco,whose ban affectingpacking peanuts, ice chests, to-gocoffeecups, meat and fishtrays, and dock floats goes into effect January 1, 2017. The cityalready had a ban on take-out containers since 2007.
Why all the fuss about these lightweight products? If your cityhasnt banned Styrofoam yet, you may want to initiate theprocess after reading this list.
1. Puts toxins in your food.Would you like some toxins withyour coffee, soup, or beer? Trace amounts of styrene aswell as various chemical additives in polystyrene migrateinto food, which increases significantly in hot liquids,according toOlga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist at theEnvironmental Working Group. Although each individualdose may be very low, think about the cumulative effect!How many cups of coffee or microwaved noodles inpolystyrene cups have you consumed?
Foods and beverages in polystyrene that are more likely toleach toxic substancesinclude those that are hot (e.g.,coffee, tea, soup, chili, reheated leftovers), oily (e.g., Frenchfries, burgers, pizza, salad dressings), and/or contain acid(e.g., tomatoes, citrus) or alcohol (e.g., beer, wine). Thepictures above say it all. I personally took it a couple ofweeks ago when my mother asked me for a cup of tea at anaffair we were at. You can see from the picture how the cupstarted breaking down in the hot liquid. I showed it to thepeople in the room and they couldnt believe it.
Along with being a possible carcinogen, styrene is also aneurotoxin and accumulates in fatty tissue. The adversehealth effects associated with exposure to styrene includefatigue, reduced ability to concentrate, increase in abnormalpulmonary function, disrupted hormone function (includingthyroid), headache, and irritation of the eyes and nose.Check out the Worker exposure bullet for more about theimpact of exposure to styrene.
2. Puts workers in danger.Tens of thousands of workers areexposed to styrene in the manufacture of rubber, plastics,and resins. Chronic exposure is associated with centralnervous system symptoms, including headache, fatigue,weakness, impaired hearing, and depression as well aseffects on kidney function. A newstudy(2016) reportedexcess numbers of deaths associated with lung cancer,ovarian cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(COPD) among such workers.
3. Lasts (almost) forever.It takes about 500 years forpolystyrene to decompose in the environment. Since thevast majority of polystyrene is not recycled (see What youcan do), our landfills are harboring a significant amount ofpolystyrene: by volume,25 to 30 percentof landfillmaterials are plastics, including Styrofoam.
4. Contributes to air pollution and climate change.Ifpolystyrene is burned or incinerated, it releases toxic carbonmonoxide into the air. If you burn trash or have a fireplace,never ever burn polystyrene.
The manufacturing process for polystyrene foam alsoreleases harmful hydrocarbons, which combine with nitrogenoxides in the presence of sunlight and form a dangerous airpollutant at ground level called tropospheric ozone, which isassociated with health effects such as wheezing, shortnessof breath, nausea,asthma, and bronchitis.
5. Comes from a non-sustainable source.Polystyrene ismade from petroleum, a non-sustainable product. ThisStyrofoam-like product is an environmental hazard fromstart to finish!
6. Harms wildlife.Polystyrene often makes its way into theenvironment, especially waterways. As it breaks down, thepieces are frequently consumed by both land and marineanimals, causing blockage of their digestive system,choking, and death.
What You Can Do
Recycle/repurpose!Polystyrene can be recycled in someareas. You can locate suchrecycling opportunitiesnear youby going toEarth911or checking with your local recyclingcompanies or city/county recycling directory. Once you finda location or two, you may want to call ahead to make sureexactly what they accept. The packing polystyrene blocksare accepted by some facilities for repurposing into buildingmaterials.
If you work for a company that handles a significant amountof polystyrene, you might look for a facility that will acceptlarge volumes of the material. In all cases, remove anylabels, tape, and other items from the polystyrene that couldcontaminate the recycling process.
Reuse.If you receive packages that contain the polystyrenepacking peanuts, you can reuse them for your own packingor donate them to a local UPS or shipping store. Blocks ofpolystyrene also can be reused for personal or businesspurposes.
Pick it up.If you are out walkingand you see polystyrenecups or other debris, pick it up and dispose of it (unless itsa form you can recycle). At least you reduce the chances ofthe plastic being consumed by wildlife, ending up inwaterways, or clogging sewer lines.
Say no to polystyrene.Choose not to buy any type ofpolystyrene products (e.g., cups, dishes, containers) oritems that are packaged in this plastic. When I eat out, I askfor an alternative to polystyrene for leftovers, and when Iorder take out I bring my own glass containers when I can.You can also bring your own stainless steel or ceramic coffeemug when visiting a coffee shop or any establishment thatserves coffee in polystyrene.
Be a maverick.If you work or volunteer in a facility wherepolystyrene cups are used in the break room, introduce theidea of switching to ceramic mugs. Remind the powers thatbe that this switch will save money! Everyone has a mug ortwo at home they can part with for the cause. Yes, the mugswill need to be rinsed, but were all adults now, right?
Reheat safely.Never reheat food or beverages inpolystyrene containers. Use ceramic, stoneware, or glass.
Image viaSam Johnson
Bottom Line.Styrofoam really is bad for your health
Earth 911.Recycling mystery: expanded polystyrene
Earth Resource Foundation.Polystyrene foam report
Environmental Protection Agency.Benzene
Environmental Protection Agency.Advancing sustainable material management: 2013 factsheet
Ruder AM et al. Mortality among styrene-exposed workers in the reinforced plasticboatbuilding industry.Occupational and Environmental Medicine2016 Feb; 73(2): 97-102
San Francisco Chronicle.San Francisco bans Styrofoam and other cities should follow
Washington Post.You have never actually used a Styrofoam cup, plate, or takeout box
Written by Andrea Donsky. Reposted with permission fromNaturally Savvy.
Photo Credit: Sam Johnson/Flickr
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.
Put Down that Styrofoam Cup!