Environmental Health Update: Ending our Love Affair with Styrofoam

Environmental Health Update: Ending our Love Affair with Styrofoam
September 5, 2014 - 1:53 pm, by

For over 50 years, the food industry has used Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) food service products for a variety of food and beverage service needs. EPS, commonly known as Styrofoam, is cheap and durable, so it seems ideal for takeout food or your hot cup of to-go coffee. But you might want to rethink drinking your coffee from that Styrofoam cup, or carelessly throwing out that takeout container. Not only is EPS awful for your health, but it’s equally as damaging to the environment.

Health. When a warm substance, whether it be food, oils, beverages, etc., is in contact with EPS, styrene (the chemical used in the manufacture of Styrofoam cups and food containers) and other various and toxic chemicals, such as benzene, migrate into the food or liquid, causing human contamination. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) recently stated that styrene is “reasonably anticipated” to be a carcinogen, which means it’s a substance that is capable of causing cancer. Styrene has also been linked to causing nerve damage and hormonal disruption.

The Environment. Over 100 U.S., Canadian, European, and Asian cities have banned EPS. Although EPS containers generally have lower per-unit average costs, environmentally their cost is significant. Since EPS breaks down into small pieces and is so lightweight, EPS litter is not manageable using usual litter-control methods. Therefore, the state’s waterways, storm drains and marine environments are all seriously impacted by EPS litter. EPS has been shown to be harmful to the marine life and wildlife that ingests it. Additionally, EPS is not biodegradable; it can take hundreds of years for EPS to break down in a landfill. Not only is the actual EPS itself detrimental to the environment, but the environmental costs of producing EPS has also been shown to be substantial.

Domestically, demand for “green packaging” will rise 3.9% annually through 2014, outpacing growth in overall packaging demand. Degradable packaging is expected to grow fastest. According to Freedonia Industry Research, “the degradable plastics market is expected to be worth $380 million by 2014, as demand in the US increases 16.6% a year through 2015. This growth is attributed to increased capacity, falling prices, and improved material performance.” Although it is not clear which material will arise as the dominant substitute for Styrofoam, it seems clear that the familiar white coffee cup may join the ranks of vinyl records and telephone modems in pop-culture museums.

-Cara M. Scheibling

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