The iconic white coffee cup and clamshell take-out containers we all know so well are not REALLY Styrofoam, so let’s make that clear from the beginning. That doesn’t make the items I’m talking about any less dangerous, as you’ll see below, but it’s important to clarify what we are talking about.
The real Styrofoam™ was invented in 1941, is made by Dow Chemical, and is “used exclusively in building insulation, to float docks, and in some molds for floral arrangements… With very few exceptions it’s colored light blue.”
The white plastic items we incorrectly refer to as Styrofoam are very similar yet different. Here’s the difference:
• The trademarked product called Styrofoam is produced using a closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam.
• The white disposable coffee cups, coolers, takeout containers, and packing peanuts refers to expanded (not extruded) polystyrene foam, which is sometimes referred to as EPS.
Now that we have cleared that up, here’s why the disposable polystyrene products we can find everywhere are hazardous to human and environmental health.
What Is Polystyrene?
Polystyrene is a petroleum-based lightweight plastic made from styrene, a synthetic chemical classified as a possible human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer; and benzene, a known human carcinogen according to the EPA. It is about 95 percent air and commonly used to make disposable beverage containers, coolers, meat and fish trays in supermarkets, packaging materials, and take-out food containers. You may see the number 6 surrounded by a recycling symbol or the letters “PS” on products made of polystyrene.
6 Reasons to Avoid Use of Polystyrene
The good news is that a slowly growing number of cities around the world are phasing out or banning polystyrene. So far, more than 100 cities have some type of ban on foam products. The latest city on the list is San Francisco, whose ban affecting packing peanuts, ice chests, to-go coffee cups, meat and fish trays, and dock floats goes into effect January 1, 2017. The city already had a ban on take-out containers since 2007.
Why all the fuss about these lightweight products? If your city hasn’t banned Styrofoam yet, you may want to initiate the process after reading this list.
1. Puts toxins in your food. Would you like some toxins with your coffee, soup, or beer? “Trace amounts of styrene as well as various chemical additives in polystyrene migrate into food, which increases significantly in hot liquids,” according to Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. Although each individual dose may be very low, think about the cumulative effect! How many cups of coffee or microwaved noodles in polystyrene cups have you consumed?
Foods and beverages in polystyrene that are more likely to leach toxic substances include those that are hot (e.g., coffee, tea, soup, chili, reheated leftovers), oily (e.g., French fries, burgers, pizza, salad dressings), and/or contain acid (e.g., tomatoes, citrus) or alcohol (e.g., beer, wine). The pictures above say it all. I personally took it a couple of weeks ago when my mother asked me for a cup of tea at an affair we were at. You can see from the picture how the cup started breaking down in the hot liquid. I showed it to the people in the room and they couldn’t believe it.
Along with being a possible carcinogen, styrene is also a neurotoxin and accumulates in fatty tissue. The adverse health effects associated with exposure to styrene include fatigue, reduced ability to concentrate, increase in abnormal pulmonary function, disrupted hormone function (including thyroid), headache, and irritation of the eyes and nose. Check out the “Worker exposure” bullet for more about the impact of exposure to styrene.
2. Puts workers in danger. Tens of thousands of workers are exposed to styrene in the manufacture of rubber, plastics, and resins. Chronic exposure is associated with central nervous system symptoms, including headache, fatigue, weakness, impaired hearing, and depression as well as effects on kidney function. A new study (2016) reported excess 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 for polystyrene to decompose in the environment. Since the vast majority of polystyrene is not recycled (see “What you can do”), our landfills are harboring a significant amount of polystyrene: by volume, 25 to 30 percent of landfill materials are plastics, including Styrofoam.
4. Contributes to air pollution and climate change. If polystyrene is burned or incinerated, it releases toxic carbon monoxide into the air. If you burn trash or have a fireplace, never ever burn polystyrene.
The manufacturing process for polystyrene foam also releases harmful hydrocarbons, which combine with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight and form a dangerous air pollutant at ground level called tropospheric ozone, which is associated with health effects such as wheezing, shortness of breath, nausea, asthma, and bronchitis.
5. Comes from a non-sustainable source. Polystyrene is made from petroleum, a non-sustainable product. This Styrofoam-like product is an environmental hazard from start to finish!
6. Harms wildlife. Polystyrene often makes its way into the environment, especially waterways. As it breaks down, the pieces are frequently consumed by both land and marine animals, causing blockage of their digestive system, choking, and death.
What You Can Do
• Recycle/repurpose! Polystyrene can be recycled in some areas. You can locate such recycling opportunities near you by going to Earth911 or checking with your local recycling companies or city/county recycling directory. Once you find a location or two, you may want to call ahead to make sure exactly what they accept. The packing polystyrene blocks are accepted by some facilities for repurposing into building materials.
If you work for a company that handles a significant amount of polystyrene, you might look for a facility that will accept large volumes of the material. In all cases, remove any labels, tape, and other items from the polystyrene that could contaminate the recycling process.
• Reuse. If you receive packages that contain the polystyrene packing peanuts, you can reuse them for your own packing or donate them to a local UPS or shipping store. Blocks of polystyrene also can be reused for personal or business purposes.
• Pick it up. If you are out walking and you see polystyrene cups or other debris, pick it up and dispose of it (unless it’s a form you can recycle). At least you reduce the chances of the plastic being consumed by wildlife, ending up in waterways, or clogging sewer lines.
• Say no to polystyrene. Choose not to buy any type of polystyrene products (e.g., cups, dishes, containers) or items that are packaged in this plastic. When I eat out, I ask for an alternative to polystyrene for leftovers, and when I order take out I bring my own glass containers when I can. You can also bring your own stainless steel or ceramic coffee mug when visiting a coffee shop or any establishment that serves coffee in polystyrene.
• Be a maverick. If you work or volunteer in a facility where polystyrene cups are used in the break room, introduce the idea of switching to ceramic mugs. Remind the powers that be that this switch will save money! Everyone has a mug or two at home they can part with for the cause. Yes, the mugs will need to be rinsed, but we’re all adults now, right?
• Reheat safely. Never reheat food or beverages in polystyrene containers. Use ceramic, stoneware, or glass.
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 fact sheet
Ruder AM et al. Mortality among styrene-exposed workers in the reinforced plastic boatbuilding industry. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2016 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