Styrofoam May Be Light, But Its Problems Are Not

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“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
– Robert Swan, Author

Styrofoam is a trade or brand name for the generic material, expanded polystyrene (EPS), a material manufactured from styrene, a petroleum-based plastic. Referring to all expanded polystyrene products, like coffee cups and other food service materials, as styrofoam is incorrect and so, for the purposes of this blog post, the words plastic foam will be used in place of the term styrofoam or EPS. The popularity of plastic foam stems from the fact that it is so lightweight, it’s literally 95% air. It offers good insulation properties that keep products cold or hot and also provides effective padding (without adding additional weight) to help keep items safe during shipping. Additionally, it is used as insulation boards in the construction of buildings and as loose packaging materials such as packing peanuts. Unfortunately, even though plastic foam may be light, its effects on both our health and the environment are quite heavy.

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM:

Here are some of the reasons for concern regarding plastic foam:

  • Though the EPA has not formally designated styrene (the primary building block of plastic foam) a carcinogen, several epidemiological studies suggest there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia/lymphoma (styrene can leach into food/beverages from plastic foam food ware, this seems to occur to a greater degree if the beverage is hot or if the food is reheated in the plastic foam container). Studies have shown that 100% of human tissue samples and human breastmilk samples tested contain trace amounts of styrene. Its only way of entering our body is through the food we eat.

  • Plastic foam is non-biodegradable. It lasts for over 500 years.

  • Plastic foam easily breaks into small bits (who hasn’t had the tiny pieces all over their floor or clothing after unpacking a box containing plastic foam packing material?) and can be ingested by small land and aquatic animals. This can lead to death of the animal due to toxins from the material, blockage of the stomach, or starvation (non-digestible plastic fills the stomach instead of food).

  • Because plastic foam is lightweight and floats, much has accumulated along coasts and waterways around the world. In studies from California, plastic foam was found to be the second most abundant form of beach debris.

  • Because plastic foam is porous it absorbs other carcinogenic pollutants in sea water.

  • When plastic foam sinks into the sea it can be eaten by fish who ingest both the toxic materials in the plastic foam and the additional pollutants it has absorbed. Those chemicals bio-accumulate and can cause harm to humans who ingest the seafood.

  • Lastly, plastic foam is harmful to the environment because it is made with petroleum, a non-sustainable natural resource.

Do we really use that much plastic foam anyway?

  • The world produces more than 14 million US tons of plastic foam each year (imagine that volume given how light it is!)

  • Americans alone throw away around 25 billion plastic foam cups every year! That is equivalent to about 82 cups per person per year.

  • The EPA states that of the 3 million tons of plastic foam produced in the U.S., 2.3 million tons ends up in landfills, with much of the remainder finding its way into waterways.

  • Remember from above, plastic foam does not biodegrade or break down over time and so what ends up in our landfills will still be there even after 500 years.

  • Plastic foam is 100% recyclable but, unfortunately, it is not commonly recycled. The cost of plastic foam recycling is quite high but thankfully recycling efforts are increasing.

HOW CAN WE BE A PART OF THE SOLUTION:

1) RECYCLE YOUR STYROFOAM!
We are fortunate, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to have multiple locations where we can recycle our plastic foam (see below). Dart facilities receive plastic foam from schools, community recyclers, supermarkets, hospitals, manufacturing plants, cafeterias, and individuals. Dart transports the plastic foam it collects to its Michigan recycling center for reprocessing. Once processed the material then goes to a manufacturer who will use it to make premium picture frames, crown moulding, and many other useful products. Plastic foam accepted at Dart recycling drop off sites includes:

  • foam cups, plates, bowls

  • “to go” containers or clam shells

  • egg cartons

  • ice chests

  • rinsed meat trays

  • protective shaped or molded packaging foam (frequently used to protect electronics and other consumer goods during shipping)

  • any other foam with the #6 inside the chasing arrows triangle (the traditional symbol for recycling)

Instructions for drop off include:

  • all cups and containers must be rinsed to rid them of food

  • no straws or lids

  • remove any packaging tape and labels

  • foam containers should bear the #6 inside the chasing arrows symbol as above

Your cooperation with these specifications helps boost recycling rates and reduces the cost of recycling.

Please Note: Dart facilities DO NOT ACCEPT plastic foam packing peanuts nor do they accept plastic foam that has been treated with a fire retardant (such as in construction).

Large recycle bins at Dart plastic foam drop off locations are open 24/7 and are located at:

  • 110 Pitney Rd., Lancaster (just off the Greenfield Rd. exit of Rt. 30)

  • 60 East Main Street, Leola

2) RE-USE OR DONATE PACKAGING PEANUTS:

  • Save the packaging peanuts you receive and re-use them when you send a package.

  • In addition, many people re-use their plastic foam peanuts for their indoor potted plants. I put a layer in the bottom of my pots and then cover them with potting soil. This helps with water drainage. I also saw a suggestion to mix the peanuts with the potting soil to help keep the soil moist longer and cut down on the amount of watering needed. If you are using large indoor planters, plastic foam peanuts at the bottom of the pot or mixed in with the soil will decrease the overall weight of the filled planter.

  • Many businesses that ship packages (UPS, etc) accept donations of clean packaging peanuts. There are UPS store locations in Hershey and Mount Joy as well as others.

3) CHANGE YOUR HABITS!

  • Refuse plastic foam cups wherever possible

  • Bring your own take-out containers to restaurants or your own travel mug to coffee shops

  • Choose paper plates, cups, and bowls instead of plastic foam

  • Avoid plastic foam egg cartons

  • Convince your grocery store to cut out plastic foam trays for meat and produce

  • Work with the school system to find alternatives to plastic foam lunch trays

  • Resist and Reuse packing peanuts (see above)

  • Recycle where plastic foam can be recycled (see above)

4) INFLUENCE YOUR CHURCH!

At the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ Annual Meeting in June 2018, a resolution was passed encouraging all congregations to avoid the use of plastic foam in food packaging and other activities within their church facility. They further encouraged congregations to educate members about plastic foam and to use alternatives such as paper products or, better yet, ceramic or other dishwasher safe products. Their reasoning was: plastic foam is a known pollutant; components of plastic foam are known carcinogens in animals and suspected in humans; landfills are filling up with plastics and plastic foam does not decompose; there are alternatives to plastic foam packaging that are readily available; and we are called, as a people of faith, to care for creation.

https://pccucc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Resolution-regarding-use-of-plastic-foam.pdf

This is one of the reasons why the Green Team has asked the Fellowship Committee to use our church’s ample supply of ceramic dishware for congregational meals and has been involved in the dish washing after those meals. We have also encouraged and provided information to the Fellowship Committee with regard to future ordering, favoring paper products rather than plastic foam even if that cost may be higher.

5) INFLUENCE YOUR LAWMAKERS!

Contact your state representative (for Elizabethtown that is the Hon. Mindy Fee at 717-772-5290 or write to her at 164B East Wing, PO Box 20237, Harrisburg, PA 17120). Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering House Bill 2560, a bill that would ban the use of polystyrene (plastic foam) food containers in all ‘food-based establishments’ in Pennsylvania. This bill was introduced in November 2018 by Representative Tim Briggs (D-149) of Montgomery County. There is concern that this bill will not pass because of Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas industry lobby. Remember, plastic foam is a petroleum based product and there are many in Pennsylvania who believe we, as a state, could benefit economically from producing more plastic foam here, not eliminating it. Please consider contacting your representative to tell her that you disagree!

Plastic foam has been successfully banned in many major cities across the United States including New York City; Washington, DC; Portland, Maine; and Miami Beach, Florida.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

We are mislead if we believe somebody else will save our planet, we must do all that we can and convince others to do the same. Change one habit, make one phone call, talk to one neighbor or friend or fellow member of our congregation. And the next time you are faced with plastic foam don’t be fooled by how lightweight it feels. Remember its heavy impact on your health and the environment and say “no.” Then tell the person who offered it to you the reason why you are saying “no.” Shared knowledge can lead to powerful change.



Paper Recycling in Lancaster County - Speak for the Trees!

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“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
Dr.  Seuss, The Lorax

New Guidelines for Paper Recycling:

As most are aware, recycling guidelines have changed in Lancaster County. We used to be able to put everything but shredded paper in our bins and now we are only able to recycle flattened, corrugated cardboard with our weekly curbside collection. Since recycling is one of the few things I feel like I can actually do to positively impact our Earth, I was literally sick at the idea of throwing all of my paper into the trash. Some may be thinking, does it really matter? Does recycling paper really make a difference? Why should I make an extra effort to recycle paper now that it’s no longer as easy as hauling it up to the curb?

Benefits of Recycling Paper - YES, it does matter!

Paper and paper-based packaging manufacturers reuse recycled paper every day. In fact, in 2016 U.S. paper and paper-based packaging manufacturers consumed more than 30 million tons of recycled paper to make new products ranging from corrugated containers to paperboard boxes to writing paper and tissue.

Every ton of paper recycled saves:

  • More than 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space that could be used for other, non-recyclable materials.

  • 17 trees! Every tree saved helps to protect the habitats of beautiful birds, insects, and a wide variety of wildlife whose homes are in those trees.

  • 7,000 gallons of water, another crucial and limited resource.

  • 4,000 kilowatts of energy, enough to power the average U.S. home for six months.

  • 380 gallons of oil.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions (rather than releasing pollutants into the air from a waste incinerator).

Where to recycle paper in Lancaster County:

The City of Lancaster Recycling Drop-Off Center (http://cityoflancasterpa.com/resident/recycling-center) is located at 850 New Holland Avenue. All residents of Lancaster County may use the facility whose hours of operation are M-F 8 AM - 5 PM and Sat 8 AM - 12 PM. Paper should be separated prior to arrival at the facility. Follow the link on their website to a color brochure or see the list below for all papers accepted and separate into:

  • Mixed Office Paper (printer paper, envelopes, index cards, file folders, dividers, uncoated/not glossy junk mail).

  • Newspaper (including ads/inserts), phone books, and soft cover books.

  • Magazines (including catalogs, glossy/shiny paper like brochures, pamphlets, food menus, and mail flyers).

  • Chipboard (boxes without a fluted center such as cereal boxes, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, etc.).

  • Soft Cover Books (can be included in office paper, newspaper, or magazines depending on the type of paper of the pages - covers do NOT need to be removed!).

  • Hard Cover Books (regardless of the type of paper of the pages, all hardcover books go into a separate bin at the facility).

  • Shredded Paper (the facility does not shred paper for you but will accept bags/boxes of paper that has been pre-shredded).

  • Corrugated Cardboard (brown paper bags can also go in with the corrugated cardboard).

  • The following items are not accepted: wrapping paper, tissue paper, paper plates and cups, napkins/paper towels/tissues, photos, and shopping bags.

Did You Know?

Our church separates and recycles all paper it might otherwise throw into the trash! Nadinne Ziegler, the church’s Business Administrator, regularly takes the separated paper to the City of Lancaster Recycling Center. In addition, our last two Fellowship meals (after the November congregational meeting and after Pastor Laura’s ordination service in December) did not use paper plates, bowls, or plastic utensils. We used the church’s dishes and the dishwasher and greatly reduced our paper and plastic waste. We extend a huge thank you to Nadinne, all members of the Christ Church staff, the Fellowship Committee, the Green Team, and our congregation for being committed to the green efforts of recycling and reducing consumption.

Would you consider a new green intention in your own home for 2019? Do you make a trip to Lancaster once a month, maybe an errand, maybe for work? Could you create a new habit of collecting and sorting your paper during the month so that it could be dropped off at the recycling center on one of your Lancaster trips rather than thrown into the trash? If you don’t travel toward Lancaster, could you identify a friend in church or in your neighborhood who might be willing to take your pre-sorted paper along with them when they stop at the recycling center? I have 3 boxes (for mixed office paper, magazines/glossy paper, and chipboard) in my laundry room and I sort the paper that comes into our house daily into those boxes and then take them to the recycling center once or twice a month when I have an errand in Lancaster. The recycling center is easily accessible, easy to drive through, and I have never encountered a wait. Would you consider the additional step of suggesting and implementing a paper recycling practice in your office or work place as well?

Another option for recycling magazines, catalogs, and any type of glossy paper is the dumpster that still remains in the old Darrenkamp’s parking lot on Ridgeview Rd. This collection supports Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Non-glossy, black and white, shredded paper can also be added to your compost pile or tumbler as another option for recycling.

Lastly, consider these suggestions for decreasing your paper consumption as another avenue for minimizing the amount of paper that hits the trash:

  • Catalog Choice (https://www.catalogchoice.org/) is a website that allows you to opt out and remove your name from catalog mailing lists. It does take an initial investment of time (less than 30 min) to familiarize yourself with the site, create and account, and set up your profiles (name(s) and address(es), especially if you are like me and receive catalogs addressed to multiple household members, a correct and incorrect spelling of your name, as well as the previous occupants of your home). After the initial set up, the process of opting out of the catalogs is fast and easy. I collect catalogs as they come in the mail and, once a week or every other week, sit down for a few minutes on the website to opt out of future catalog mailings. The process really works, I must say I now receive far fewer catalogs than before!

  • Read your news via online sources or subscriptions rather than print versions, thereby eliminating your newspaper delivery.

  • Say no to printed receipts and instead keep a small log book to record credit or debit transactions.

Speak for the Trees!

There are times, and I can remember this even more vividly when I had 3 children bringing massive quantities of paper home from school every day, when I feel as if I am literally drowning in paper! The amount of paper that comes into our house on a daily basis is astounding. We have an opportunity, with just a little bit of time, effort, and intention, to help our planet by recycling and/or reducing the paper that we encounter so that we can save our trees, our water, our air, and so many other resources.

Please leave a comment if you know of other useful tips or practices for recycling or reducing paper in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Thank you!