Polystyrene, commonly referred to as Styrofoam™, is a devil in disguise. It is lightweight, cheap and is used to make disposable items for foodservice including cups, takeout containers, plates and bowls.
Its primary component is styrene, also known as vinyl benzene, which has been described by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as a likely human carcinogen. Ultimately it’s destined to become litter and poses serious risks during manufacturing, use, and disposal.
It releases dangerous styrene.
The EPA recognizes styrene (the primary building block of polystyrene) as a health threat to humans. It’s also considered a human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Styrene mimics estrogens in the body, disrupting normal hormone functions, 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.
It’s making a global mess.
Polystyrene manufacturing is the fifth largest industrial producer of hazardous waste. Besides manufacturing, polystyrene causes a mess in the environment. Because it is so lightweight and easily breaks apart into smaller pieces, it tends to drift away on currents of wind and water. Given its ubiquitous presence in disposable packaging, polystyrene is one of the most abundant forms of global pollution. And it poses a widespread threat to the health of wild animals and the ecosystems that depend on them.
It’s also a major component of the plastic debris in the oceans. Currents and other marine action degrades polystyrene into carcinogenic molecules that are passed onto animals like birds and turtles who mistake the particles for food, often leading to death from malnutrition.
It’s practically impossible to dispose of properly.
Once used, almost all polystyrene food packaging has food residue and is not clean enough to be recycled. Less than .2% of polystyrene food packaging was recycled in California in 2004.
Even if it were clean enough to recycle, less than 5% of foam packaging is actually polystyrene, and the rest is air, making it uneconomical to collect for recycling. The handful of manufacturers that collect polystyrene compress it to 1/10th of its original volume and sell the blocks to recyclers. The blocks can’t be used in new polystyrene products, so it becomes filler in other plastics making them virtually impossible to recycle.
Burning polystyrene is up in the air.
Incinerating polystyrene for energy can release emissions containing more than 90 different compounds, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which may cause birth defects. 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.
Reducing our use of products made from polystyrene will reduce health risks and environmental risks posed by this toxic polymer, of which there are many.
The cities banning polystyrene continues to grow. Do you live in one?
Increased bans of polystyrene by local and regional municipalities throughout the US and Canada are making a difference. Check out the map below to see if you live in an area that has one in place. If not, consider contacting your local government to push for a ban.