The Truth About Polystyrene (Styrofoam)

why you should never use styrofoam again

Just say NO to styrofoam

Styrene or polystyrene is the industry name for the plastic foam that most of us call “Styrofoam”**, and there are so many reasons why you should never use it again. Polystyrene products are made with petroleum, and a number of other non-sustainable, toxic and heavily-polluting ingredients. It’s essentially not recyclable, and once it goes to the landfill it virtually never breaks down. Ever. On top of that, it is probably leaching toxins into your food or drink. It’s so bad that it’s been banned in many places, all over the world. Want to learn more about why to just say no to styrofoam?

It’s toxic

In June 2011 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added Styrene, the chemical found and released from polystyrene (styrofoam) products such as “to-go” containers, cups and plates, to its list of materials that are anticipated to be carcinogens (putting people at increased risk for cancer). There is a reasonable chance that these toxic chemicals may leach from polystyrene products into the food or beverage that they contain.

Don’t be fooled by green-washing

The chemical lobbies and the polystyrene product manufacturers are consistently attempting to “green-wash” their products by misleading consumers about environmental practices or the environmental risks and benefits. For example, a growing number of polystyrene products now proudly display the message: “An average weight paper cup generates 148% more solid waste by weight than a comparable foam cup”. Really? It’s true that polystyrene is lightweight and is 95% air so it does indeed weigh less than paper, but that isn’t the real story. What they fail to tell you is that 25-30% of the total amount of space in our landfills is taken up by polystyrene and other petroleum-based plastics.

It will be around for a looonnnggg time

The manufacturers bring up solid waste but choose not to tell you that foam containers aren’t biodegradable. Polystyrene is biologically inert - so microorganisms have a a really hard time eating it. And decomposition is a whole other issue. Yes, in theory polystyrene can break down over vast amounts of time (estimates range from 100 to 1 million years depending on the source). But what actually happens is that it merely breaks down into much smaller pieces, and those smaller pieces still contain the chemicals and toxins that comprise the original product. Have you ever seen the tiny styrofoam pieces that like to stick to everything when you unpack that new TV or computer? That’s basically what you get from polystyrene decomposition.

They will also tell you that decomposition can be “aided by heat”. It’s ironic that they don’t just come out and say it can be burned, because that’s exactly what happens to a lot of polystyrene around the world. And yes, we’ve all done it -- thrown the styrofoam cup or plate on the fire so that we could watch it melt. But burning polystyrene releases large amounts of Carbon Monoxide, along with Styrene and a slew of other toxic chemical compounds into the environment which are known to be hazardous to our health.

It’s not really recyclable either

And for all those folks that think polystyrene is recyclable because it has a #6 recycling symbol on the bottom; guess again. While the technology does exist in some countries to recycle polystyrene, the market for recycling it is incredibly small and shrinking. Polystyrene can be remade into items such as packing peanuts and some cafeteria trays, but not into cups, “to-go” or food containers. Containers that have previously been used for food storage create a massive food hygiene issue for recyclers. Because of this, and due to the shrinking market for the recycled products, many recyclers do not accept polystyrene. So don’t bother putting it in your blue recycling bin cause it’s just going to get thrown away anyway.

It will leach toxins into your food

Okay so maybe you’re not burning styrofoam, but just putting hot food or liquids into it. When they come into contact with warm food or drink, polystyrene food containers leach the toxins Styrene and Benzene (both suspected carcinogens, and known neurotoxins) -- some of which can ultimately be absorbed into our bloodstream and tissues. And it only gets worse if you pop that “to-go” container in the microwave or want to “warm up” that coffee.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency website advises us to: “Remove food from plastic wrap, freezer cartons, and/or Styrofoam trays before defrosting and cooking. They are not heat stable and could leak hazardous compounds from the container or plastic wrap into the food.” Enough said.

Because polystyrene products are so common, many people assume they are safe, and that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), would not allow an unhealthy product to be sold to the public. But in 1986 the National Human Adipose Tissue Survey identified Styrene residues in 100% of all samples of human fat tissue taken in the US. Yet it’s still everywhere.

It’s a hazardous waste

And let’s review the environmental impact too. A 1986 EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste in the United States. When considering cradle-to-grave impacts (because that’s what we do that at The Going Green Store) -- to include the product manufacturing process, the use and disposal of the product, energy consumption, greenhouse gas effects, and the total environmental effect -- polystyrene’s negative environmental impacts were 2nd highest, sitting right behind aluminum, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

It’s banned in other places

Did you know that over 100 North American, as well as numerous European and Asian cities, have banned polystyrene food packaging altogether as a result of the negative impacts to humans and the environment? Even McDonald’s saw the pitfalls of polystyrene and switched to paper containers years ago.

So what can we, you and I, do today?

  1. Be aware of the harmful effects of this product (from a health and environmental viewpoint) and tell others.
  2. Choose paper over styrofoam every time, or better yet, use a reusable container or mug. A growing number of local restaurants and coffee shops are switching to health-conscious, planet-friendly options -- thank them and tell them that it matters!
  3. When shopping for groceries select items that are wrapped in polystyrene-free packaging or better yet, forgo packaging altogether if you can.
  4. Ask your local takeaway restaurants to use a more health-conscious alternative to styrofoam. Many alternatives are now readily available and are made from materials such as post-consumer recycled paper, bagasse (sugarcane) and plant-based plastics.

** Styrofoam is actually the trade name for polystyrene made by the Dow Chemical Company.