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.