Impacts and Risks of Polystyrene
Environmental & Social Issues

Impacts and Risks of Polystyrene

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

The Perils of Polystyrene

To learn more, download our informational flyer, The Perils of Polystyrene.


*Page Notes: Plastic Packaging Resins; American Chemistry Council, Plastics Division; http://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Plastic-Resin-Codes; March 2007. Plastics: Impacts, Risks and Regulations; National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, Environmental Roadmapping Initiative; http://ecm.ncms.org/ERI/new/IRRplastics.htm; August 8, 2004. Polyethylene Terephthalate May Yield Endocrine Disruptors; Leonard Sax; Environmental Health Perspectives; http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.0901253; November 25, 2009. Toxic Substances Portal: Toxicological Profiles; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control; http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/index.asp; retrieved July 12, 2012. Bottled Water : University Edition; Social & Environmental, Responsible Purchasing Network; http://www.responsiblepurchasing.org/purchasing_guides/bottled_water_university_edition/social_environ/; Retrieved 6/30/12. MU's Frederick vom Saal Wants FDA to Ban BPA, Endocrine Disruptors; Simina Mistreanu; The Columbia Missourian; http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2012/01/31/mus-frederick-vom-saal-wants-fda-ban-bpa-endocrine-disruptors/; January 31, 2012. ToxFAQs™ for Vinyl Chloride; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control; http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=281&tid=51; July 2006. PVC: The Most Toxic Plastic; Children’s Health Environmental Coalition; http://www.cehn.org/search/node/pvc%20-%20the%20most%20toxic%20plastic; Retrieved 7/30/12. Polypropylene; Environmental Information Document: Australian Manufacture; http://www.lyondellbasell.com/NR/rdonlyres/C2ED0A47-6430-45FA-87A4-D4018108814D/0/AusPPEnvirostatementJan12final.pdf; January 2012. Quantity and type of plastic debris flowing from two urban rivers to coastal waters and beaches of Southern California; C.J. Moore, G.Ll Lattin, and A.F. Zellers; Journal of Integrated Costal Zone Management; www.algalita.org/uploads/Urban_River_Debris.pdf; November 23, 2010. Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans; Michelle Allsopp, Adma Walters, David Santillo, and Paul Johnston; Greenpeace; http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/publications/default.asp; 2006. National Human Adipose Tissue Survey; United States Environmental Protection Agency; http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=55204; Retrieved 3/30/12. Styrene; Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor; http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/styrene/index.html; Retrieved March 8, 2012. Styrene: Summary of Data Reported and Evaluation; International Agency for Research on Cancer; http://www.inchem.org/documents/iarc/vol82/82-07.html; 2002. Styrofoam – The Silent Killer; Cheryl Leo; Eco Walk the Talk; http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/2011/05/21/styrofoam-the-silent-killer/; Advancing Sustainable Materials Management:2015 Tables and Figures, July 2018 https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-07/documents/smm_2015_tables_and_figures_07252018_fnl_508_0.pdf; May 21, 2011. Use and Disposal of Polystyrene in California: A Report to the California Legislature; California Integrated Waste Management Board; http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/Publications/Detail.aspx?PublicationID=1011; December 2004. Recycling Styrofoam; All Recycling Facts; http://www.all-recycling-facts.com/recycling-styrofoam.html; Retrieved 9/3/12. Polystyrene Recycling System: StyroMelt; EcoTech, An STI Group; http://www.polystyrenerecycle.com/; Retrieved 9/3/12 Polystyrene Foam Report; Earth Resource; http://www.earthresource.org/campaigns/capp/capp-styrofoam.html; Retrieved 9/3/12 Mapping Plastic Pollution; Algalita Marine Research Institute; http://www.algalita.org/research/Maps_Home.html; Retrieved February 17, 2012 Products Obtained During Combustion of Polymers Under Simulated Incinerator Conditions, II Polystyrene; Hawley-Fedder, R.A.; Parsons, M.L. and Karasek, F.W.; Journal of Chromatography, #315; Amsterdam, The Netherlands; http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002196730190737X; 1984. Burning Polystyrene Foam; Argonne National Laboratory; http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem00/chem00532.htm; Updated June 2012.


*Sources: Bottled Water: University Edition; Social & Environmental, Responsible Purchasing Network; http://www.responsiblepurchasing.org/purchasing_guides/bottled_water_university_edition/social_environ/; Retrieved 6/30/12. Burning Polystyrene Foam; Argonne National Laboratory; http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem00/chem00532.htm; Updated June 2012. Exposure to Bisphenol A and Other Phenols in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Premature Infants, Environmental Health Perspectives, http://www.ehponline.org/docs/2008/0800265/abstract.html, 2009. Facts about Foam Container Litter; Clean Water Action; http://www.cleanwateraction.org/feature/phase-out-foam-additional-information-sb-568; Retrieved February 8, 2012. Mapping Plastic Pollution; Algalita Marine Research Institute; http://www.algalita.org/research/Maps_Home.html; Retrieved February 17, 2012 MU's Frederick vom Saal Wants FDA to Ban BPA, Endocrine Disruptors; Simina Mistreanu; The Columbia Missourian; http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2012/01/31/mus-frederick-vom-saal-wants-fda-ban-bpa-endocrine-disruptors/; January 31, 2012. National Human Adipose Tissue Survey; United States Environmental Protection Agency; http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=55204; Retrieved 3/30/12. Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans; Michelle Allsopp, Adma Walters, David Santillo, and Paul Johnston; Greenpeace; http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/publications/default.asp; 2006. Plastics: Impacts, Risks and Regulations; National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, Environmental Roadmapping Initiative; http://ecm.ncms.org/ERI/new/IRRplastics.htm; August 8, 2004. Plastic Packaging Resins; American Chemistry Council, Plastics Division; http://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Plastic-Resin-Codes; March 2007. Polyethylene Terephthalate May Yield Endocrine Disruptors; Leonard Sax; Environmental Health Perspectives; http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.0901253; November 25, 2009. Polypropylene; Environmental Information Document: Australian Manufacture; http://www.lyondellbasell.com/NR/rdonlyres/C2ED0A47-6430-45FA-87A4-D4018108814D/0/AusPPEnvirostatementJan12final.pdf; January 2012. PVC: The Most Toxic Plastic; Children’s Health Environmental Coalition; http://www.cehn.org/search/node/pvc%20-%20the%20most%20toxic%20plastic; Retrieved 7/30/12. Polystyrene Foam Report; Earth Resource; http://www.earthresource.org/campaigns/capp/capp-styrofoam.html; Retrieved 9/3/12 Polystyrene Recycling System: StyroMelt; EcoTech, An STI Group; http://www.polystyrenerecycle.com/; Retrieved 9/3/12 Products Obtained During Combustion of Polymers Under Simulated Incinerator Conditions, II Polystyrene; Hawley-Fedder, R.A.; Parsons, M.L. and Karasek, F.W.; Journal of Chromatography, #315; Amsterdam, The Netherlands; http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002196730190737X; 1984. Quantity and type of plastic debris flowing from two urban rivers to coastal waters and beaches of Southern California; C.J. Moore, G.Ll Lattin, and A.F. Zellers; Journal of Integrated Costal Zone Management; www.algalita.org/uploads/Urban_River_Debris.pdf; November 23, 2010. Recycling Styrofoam; All Recycling Facts; http://www.all-recycling-facts.com/recycling-styrofoam.html; Retrieved 9/3/12. Styrene; Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor; http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/styrene/index.html; Retrieved March 8, 2012. Styrene: Summary of Data Reported and Evaluation; International Agency for Research on Cancer; http://www.inchem.org/documents/iarc/vol82/82-07.html; 2002. Styrofoam – The Silent Killer; Cheryl Leo; Eco Walk the Talk; http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/2011/05/21/styrofoam-the-silent-killer/; May 21, 2011. ToxFAQs™ for Vinyl Chloride; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control; http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=281&tid=51; July 2006. Toxic Substances Portal: Toxicological Profiles; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control; http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/index.asp; retrieved July 12, 2012. Use and Disposal of Polystyrene in California: A Report to the California Legislature; California Integrated Waste Management Board; http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/Publications/Detail.aspx?PublicationID=1011; December 2004.

 

Written by

World Centric

 

Read time

10 minutes

 

Published on

Nov 4, 2019

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