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).