Polystyrene, commonly referred to as Styrofoam™, is extremely difficult to dispose of properly, and it releases dangerous styrene into virtually all living creatures.
World Centric®’s foodservice products – including plates, cups, and carry-out containers – are a sustainable alternative to similar products made from polystyrene. Reducing our use of polystyrene reduces the many health and environmental risks associated with this dangerous product.
As early as the 1980’s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demonstrated that styrene – the molecular building block of all polystyrene, including Styrofoam – was present in 100% of the samples of human fat that they collected from all 48 states in the continental United States. 12 The EPA recognizes numerous dangers that styrene poses to the central nervous system, and exposure to styrene can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, malaise, and difficulty in concentrating.13 Styrene is considered a possible human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.14
Styrene also appears to mimic estrogens in the body, disrupting normal hormone functions, and possibly contributing to thyroid problems, menstrual irregularities, and other hormone-related problems, as well as breast cancer and prostate cancer. Chronic exposure to high levels of styrene can cause liver damage and nerve tissue damage. These effects can be especially pronounced in fetuses and young children.15
The gasses that manufacturers pump into polystyrene to turn it into “foamed polystyrene” can also be hazardous. Although many manufacturers label their foamed polystyrene as “CFC free,” the fine print often admits that the manufacturer has merely replaced CFC with HCFC. While HCFC is less damaging to the Earth’s ozone layer than CFC, it is still an ozone destroyer, and it contributes to the destruction of this critical component of the Earth’s ecosystem.15
After it has been used, polystyrene food packaging is typically not “clean” enough to be recycled, and only 1.3% of total polystyrene was recycled in the US in 2015.16 Even when it is clean enough to recycle, only about 5% of the volume of Styrofoam is actually polystyrene, and the rest is air, making Styrofoam uneconomical to collect and store for recycling.17 In rare instances, manufacturers who handle large amounts of polystyrene will consolidate their scrap materials with compactors (compressing them to less than a tenth of their original volume), and then will sell the compacted blocks of polystyrene to recyclers.18 However, the polystyrene in these blocks cannot be recovered for use in new polystyrene products. Its quality is only adequate to use as filler in other plastics, which then, in turn, become virtually impossible to recycle.19
Due to these barriers to recycling polystyrene, its ubiquitous presence in disposable packaging, and its tendency to drift away on currents of wind and water, it has become an abundant form of plastic pollution on land and in waterways. Polystyrene poses a widespread threat to the health of wild animals and the ecosystems that depend on them. This is especially true in ocean ecosystems, where it is a major component of the plastic debris there,10 and where the wind, the sun, rain, and wave action steadily degrade Styrofoam into carcinogenic component molecules, including styrene monomer (SM), styrene dimer (SD) and styrene trimer (ST).4 Foamed polystyrene leaches these toxins into the ocean, and some animals, like birds and turtles, mistake small bits of Styrofoam for food, which causes them to die of malnutrition.20
When polystyrene is burned at temperatures that are typical for modern incinerators (800-900 °C), the emissions can contain more than 90 different compounds, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which may cause birth defects.21 When burned at lower temperatures typical of a campfire or a household fireplace, polystyrene can also produce PAHs, as well as carcinogenic styrene monomers and deadly carbon monoxide.22