This is the (styro)foam that never ends…

I’ve had an aversion to Styrofoam for a long time. Many years ago at a summer camp, I went on a nature conservancy walk in Pennsylvania (about 20 minutes outside of State College) where the main lesson of the day was that trash doesn’t just disappear – it stays around for a very, very long time. On this particular walk, there were “exhibits” of many common items (which might absentmindedly be tossed in the woods) – apple core, aluminum foil, coke can, plastic bag – marked with the length of time it had been “rotting away” in these woods. The Styrofoam coffee cup on display left a particularly lasting impression (no pun intended) – besides being a bit dirtier, it looked exactly the same as it did when it was disposed of 50 years earlier.

First, I should offer a quick overview of some technical lingo. The term “Styrofoam” is commonly misused and has been for many decades. “STYROFOAM™” refers to a trademarked product, manufactured and sold by The Dow Chemical Company and is an extruded polystyrene foam made for thermal insulation (think buildings) and craft applications (think floral arrangements).

The “Styrofoam” we commonly refer to, the material used to make coffee cups and packing peanuts, is a generic form of polystyrene (PS) – the plastic that has the #6 in the triangle symbol. The correct terminology for these products is expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Another lesser-known fact that I discovered: the Koppers Company in Pittsburgh, PA (my hometown) developed EPS foam in 1959 – which I guess brings this issue even closer to home.

According to the EPA, Americans throw away 25 billion EPS cups every year and a cup that gets tossed today will still be in the landfill 500 years from now. It’s also bulky, as the foam is designed to resist compression. The estimates of landfill space taken up by EPS range from 20-30% (I have yet to identify an “official” estimate). While the PS resin (#6) used to make EPS products is used less frequently than the other plastic resins (see full report from the EPA), it also has the lowest “recovery” rate of the resins, at 0.8%. This means that 99.2% of our waste EPS spends its retirement in a landfill (at best) or in more problematic locales like waterways or oceanic garbage patches. For these reasons among others, the California Senate recently voted to ban EPS containers in the restaurant industry (the California House has yet to act on the bill).

In addition to the environmental problem (oh, did I forget to mention it’s petroleum-based?), there are (potential) health reasons to avoid polystyrene. Polystyrene is made from the styrene monomer. Last month, the US National Toxicology Program (which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services) added styrene to its list of potential carcinogenic compounds. Similar warnings on heavy exposure to styrene have been issued by the EPA, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
, and many others. Another known carcinogen, benzene, is also a chemical component of polystyrene foam.

One disappointing fact is that the technology to recycle polystyrene exists. But lack of a market for recycled polystyrene, the high costs of putting in place a facility, and the high costs of shipping the material (again, because it’s so bulky) prevent this from being common practice, at least in the US. It seems though that some Canadians may view things differently. The city of Montreal is piloting a project to test whether it can make recycling polystyrene economical, and a plant in Ontario is testing whether a new invention may make large-scale polystyrene recycling viable.

Until there are better solutions, here are a few things you can do:

1. The obvious: avoid polystyrene cups (and encourage family, friends and co-workers to do the same), reuse your packing peanuts, and use alternatives when possible (some retailers now offer biodegradable packing peanuts).

2. Sign a petition to ban EPS in your city (Californians, here’s yours).

3. Find a foam recycler near you using these resources: Alliance of Foam Packing Recyclers (AFPR), Earth 911.

Other suggestions?

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  1. Mary Briggs - July 29, 2011

    Thanks for this post. I, like you, have always had an aversion to all forms of polystyrene and studiously avoid it when at all possible. Somehow, though, the environmental (and health) issues of this product rarely make the news, yet it deserves to be taken very seriously.

  2. Pam - July 29, 2011

    In our part of Connecticut we have Single Stream Recycling and are told to co-mingle our waste items, including all plastics, styrofoam included. What happens to it then?

  3. Rob - July 29, 2011

    When I get packing peanuts and styrofoam in packages shipped to me I take them to a local shipping shore (UPS store, etc) if I don’t have a need for them. They are always happy to get some free packing materials.

  4. Chris - July 29, 2011

    I work in a biomedical lab in Canada and since refrigeration of biological samples is so critical, my group of 6-7 researchers receives several large (usually about one cubit foot) thick-walled EPS containers every week. This used to end up in the trash, but over the last couple years, one local manufacturer and distributor began collecting their containers back from us to be reused, and the rest of our EPS containers and picked up and recycled – at our cost unfortunately.
    As I said, this all happened in two years, so hopefully similar programs can be instituted at other workplaces.

  5. HTB - July 29, 2011

    Any cost estimates on changing to biodegadable styrofoam products?

  6. Katie - July 29, 2011

    I am always amazed at the prevalence of styrofoam “to go” containers. Are they that expensive? I find them ugly, ineffective (they leak juices and odors), and generally too big for whatever leftovers. Perhaps taxing them would help balance out the cost of a biodegradable or recyclable option.
    I haven’t gotten so savvy as to carry my own, but I do usually ask instead for a piece of foil for whatever little bit I carry out. I judge the restaurant by the response — if they look at me like I’m a lunatic or say “sorry, all we have are the (monster-sized) styrofoam containers,” I leave whatever behind and am not inclined to return.

  7. Kelly Sheehan - July 29, 2011

    Thank you for the information! At my workplace we sell ice cream and offer dishes made from styrofoam. I just got the owner to switch all the cups and dishes from “styrofoam” to paper dishware. it was a little more expansive but not much and worth every penny in my opinion. Is that why people use styrofoam, becuase it is so inexpensive. I hope more people can understand the lasting toxic effect all of this garbabe is having on our earth.

  8. Todd Nixon - July 30, 2011

    In addition to UPS stores you can also give them to independent stores that do packaging and shipping services for the public, small businesses that do mail order, or anybody you know that is an ebay seller. They’ll be happy to take them. The same goes for bubble wrap.

  9. surfie999 - July 31, 2011

    Crushed and shredded styrofoam is an excellent additive to potting mix to lighten the soil and provide aeration; can be used for many species but especially useful for larger plants eg palms in pots. Quite commonly used in some areas.
    Shredded stuff also a good packing item around stuff being freighted……..and seems to be usuable a few times.

  10. Keith - August 1, 2011

    Katie, you make a very good point. If your server/waiter can’t bring you foil or some other Styrofoam alternative I think not going back is the best course of action. If more people would do this and tell their server or even the manager why they are not going to return, they will start to provide eco-friendly alternatives or maybe do as the ice cream shop below did an cut out the Styrofoam all together.
    To heck with cruddy chains like TGI Fridays, lets all go get rocky road from the shop where Kelly works.

  11. Julia - August 1, 2011

    Hi Pam,
    There’s no set policy. It all depends on what your local recycling center has set up. Your recycling center may actually have the capabilities to process styrofoam recycling, or it might be sent to an alternate facility. It’s also possible that it just doesn’t end up getting recycled and is separated out (to be thrown away). You can usually contact them to find out.

  12. Terry Arnold - August 9, 2011

    I think you need to distinguish between styrene monomer which is toxic and polystyrene. Styrene is a chemical in the same family as benzene toluene and xylene all of which are carcinogens. As far as I know, polystyrene, the polymer made from styrene is not toxic.

  13. Sandra Martin - August 9, 2011

    I publish a small local newspaper once a week and would love to print this article. Would that be possible?

  14. Julia - August 9, 2011

    Terry,
    Fair point – polystyrene is not known to be toxic, so for most of us, it’s not dangerous because we’re using polystyrene products and have limited exposure to styrene.
    The main health concern that I was intending to highlight is the one for workers, who being in the manufacturing of polystyrene products, consequently have much higher exposure rates to styrene.
    I’ll reword to avoid any further confusion — thanks!

  15. Julia - August 9, 2011

    Hi Sandra,
    Of course!

  16. mim - August 18, 2011

    The City of Los Angeles accepts all clean styrofoam except the styrofoam peanuts in its blue curbside recycling bins!