The End of Styrofoam?
New York joins many other cities in banning single-use polystyrene products
The next time you order a cup of coffee in the Big Apple, it’s a safe bet the cup won’t be made of Styrofoam.
As of July 1, New York City joined more than 70 cities around the United States, including Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Albany, Seattle and Washington, D.C., by banning single-use Styrofoam (technically speaking, expanded polystyrene foam products) and polystyrene loose fill packaging such as Styrofoam “packing peanuts.”
The decision came after the New York City Department of Sanitation determined that it could not recycle expanded polystyrene foam products.
“These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City,” says Mayor Bill de Blasio in a press statement. “We have better options, better alternatives, and if more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less.”
Manufacturers are unhappy. “Arbitrary and capricious” is how Dart Container Corporation, which makes single-use foam cups and containers, described the decision. Dart has joined the Restaurant Action Alliance NYC and others in suing New York City over the ban.
But some business groups, including the Green Restaurant Association, say the environmental and health dangers of Styrofoam pose a threat that can be eliminated by using safe and renewable alternatives.
Consumer advocacy groups also applaud the ban. “The chemical styrene, which is the major component of any polystyrene food container, is toxic and polluting from start to never ending,” says Debby Lee Cohen, executive director of the organization Cafeteria Culture (formerly Styrofoam Out of Schools), a grassroots organization that was one of the leaders of the fight for the polystyrene ban in New York City.
“Whether it’s being incinerated, or going to a landfill, being littered, or even if it’s attempted to be recycled, it’s leaving a toxic trail that will last forever," Cohen says.
Some cancer with your coffee?
Styrofoam is a trade name for polystyrene, a petroleum-based plastic made from styrene. Consumers usually see polystyrene in housing insulation, packing materials and a wide range of food containers, from take-out clamshells to coffee cups.
Although the biggest danger of styrene is to workers exposed to it during manufacturing, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), there is also concern that polystyrene food containers leach styrene, a neurotoxin. (According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, chronic exposure to styrene affects the central nervous system, causing symptoms such as headache, fatigue, dizziness, confusion and difficulty in concentrating, among other side effects.)
Back in 1986, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of human fat tissues found styrene residue in all the tissue samples tested. The migration of styrene from food containers to food is made worse by heat, alcohol and grease, according to the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. The World Health Organization warned about the ability of styrene to migrate from polystyrene packaging to food in 2000.
Styrene may also cause cancer. In 2011, the DHHS’s National Toxicology Program raised styrene’s status from that of a “possible” cancer-causing substance to one “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
At the time, Linda Birnbaum of the DHHS sought to allay consumers’ fears. She told the Associated Press that levels of styrene leached from food containers are “hundreds if not thousands of times lower than have occurred in the occupational setting."
Nevertheless, in response to the report, some doctors advised pregnant women and young children to avoid Styrofoam.
Time needed to decompose: 500 years
Environmental concerns about polystyrene foam appear less controversial. Since it is a petroleum-based product, it is made from a non-renewable resource. Creating polystyrene foam products produces air pollution, hazardous waste and solid waste, according to the EPA. In fact, each year Americans throw away 25,000,000,000 Styrofoam cups, the agency reports.
Though it’s possible to recycle polystyrene, the lack of a market for recycled polystyrene foam makes recycling impossible or impractical in most places. That means once used, it is usually bound for the landfill. As much as 30 percent of landfill waste by volume is polystyrene foam, according to the Pasadena, California-based Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education.
Once in a landfill, experts estimate the material will take some 500 years to decompose.
The containers are a major source of litter, too. They have a nasty habit of finding their way into the ocean, where they can pose a danger to marine life that mistake it for food.
A report from the non-profit Green Restaurant Association argues that environmentally friendly alternatives to polystyrene foam abound, including post-consumer recycled paper, bamboo, corn plastics and other renewable materials. These products also biodegrade when composted. Because of widespread community recycling programs, you can recycle many of these products at your doorstep.
Easy ways to avoid Styrofoam
Whether it’s for health or environmental concerns, you can easily avoid polystyrene foam:
- If your office uses Styrofoam coffee cups, bring in a ceramic mug for your own use. Also, encourage your employer to use an alternative.
- Don’t buy meat, poultry or fish wrapped in Styrofoam. Purchase it directly from the store’s meat or fish counter.
- If you are throwing a party, use paper plates or reusable plates and cups rather than Styrofoam.
- If you are shipping an item and need to protect it, use crushed newspaper or bubble wrap rather than Styrofoam peanuts.
- If you are taking out food from a restaurant, find out what types of containers they use. If they use Styrofoam, ask for an alternative.
Note that while polystyrene foam is fairly distinctive and easy to recognize, some plastics may also contain it. To be sure your container is polystyrene free, make sure it does not have a recycling symbol with the number 6.