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Green Corner 

Styrofoam: Breaking up is hard to do

submitted by Launa Zimmaro

It’s lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to use, versatile and virtually indestructible. The characteristics that make Styrofoam so attractive have led to its use in many applications. How could a product that is 95% air pose problems? 

What is Styrofoam?

An EPA website explains that Styrofoam®, trademarked by Dow Chemical and patented in 1944, is a product of polystyrene, developed specifically for use in plastic foam insulation for residential, commercial and industrial buildings, as well as craft and floral products. This closed-cell, extruded polystyrene foam was invented by Swedish inventor, Carl Georg Munters. Dow purchased exclusive rights to Munters’ patents and went on to discover ways to produce large, moisture resistant quantities of the material. Since WWII, various forms of polystyrene have been developed and use has exploded. The term “Styrofoam,” like Kleenex®, has become a generic term and the term is applied to take-out containers, coffee cups and those hard to corral packing ‘peanuts.’ These items are actually made of expanded plastic foam (EPS: Expanded Polystyrene) which is produced by a different manufacturing process and with different properties than Styrofoam®. EPS can be profitably recycled and is used to create a wide range of new plastic products. Both Styrofoam® and Styrofoam are plastics made from petroleum. Please note that items made from EPS will be referred to below as Styrofoam without the trademark symbol (®).

Health implications

While handling formed Styrofoam poses no risks to consumers, production, disposal and some uses of Styrofoam come with environmental and health risks. Styrofoam is made from highly toxic chemicals including benzene and styrene. Heating Styrofoam releases toxic chemicals into the air and the Department of Health and Human Services warns that “Styrene can leach from Styrofoam food containers and contaminate food and beverages when heated or in contact with fatty or acidic foods.”

Benzene, a known carcinogen, has been banned in many industries for some time. There are strict EPA and OSHA guidelines regarding its use.

 Environmental cost

The benzene used to produce Styrofoam comes from coal and is tainted by the same environmental concerns related to coal mining.

It is estimated that 25 billion coffee cups are thrown away annually in America. In 2007, 1.7 million tons of non-durable polystyrene were generated in the U.S. Measured as only 1% of the solid waste stream by weight, this is a huge amount of material in volume.

Recycling rate estimates for polystyrene range from 1%-12%, with Styrofoam food packaging recycled at a meager 0.2%. All the rest remains to litter the landscape, clog landfills or burn in incinerators, ultimately ending up in the environment in one form or another. 

Styrofoam does not decompose in nature. If it is thrown into landfills and public spaces, it migrates to waterways where it breaks down into miniscule bits becoming a major ingredient of the plastic “soup” found dotting our oceans. This “white pollution” results in the tragic death of countless numbers of marine creatures and seabirds confusing it with food.

Solutions 

The worldwide movement to ban categories of Styrofoam is gaining momentum, but is currently limited to the municipal, business and institutional level. However, growing public awareness has resulted in rising numbers of public and private schools and cities enacting or pursuing Styrofoam bans, an incentive to businesses to find and use safer alternatives.

Reduced use

Many individuals are taking on this challenge through personal action. For everyone who uses a reusable coffee mug, 82 coffee cups will not end up in the waste stream or waterways. Reusable to-go container and cutlery sales have been growing steadily as people adopt personal, portable food systems for beverages, take-out meals and restaurant leftovers. The ranks of consumers rejecting products wrapped with excessive packaging in favor of products with minimal packaging and returning packing materials to UPS for reuse is on the rise.

And more are speaking to restaurant, grocery store and retail business management urging a switch to better alternatives — a proven strategy if enough voices are heard. 

Recycle

By far, the largest impact we can make as individuals is to recycle the stuff – more easily said than done. Recycling centers and municipalities have been reluctant to accept Styrofoam because of the high, relative cost of processing compared with other recyclable materials. Many think that Styrofoam cannot be recycled; a myth some say is perpetrated by the industry to keep Styrofoam production high.

But recent changes in world markets are making Styrofoam recycling profitable. Styrofoam recycling businesses are popping up and delivering cost-effective programs for municipalities. Following this trend, Carlisle is poised to sponsor its first Styrofoam Collection Day, free to residents, at the Transfer Station on January 22, from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

The bottom-line

We have a choice. We can continue to perpetuate a system that provides inexpensive products with high and dangerous “hidden costs” to our economy, society and the planet, or we can make the effort to reduce, reuse recycle and replace unsafe materials with safer alternatives for the benefit of all and a solid return on investment.  

The following references are some of those used: EPA Greenversations blog: http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2009/03/24/climate-for-action-choosing-an-alternative-to-styrofoam; Now and forever: The Styrofoam Dilemma Environment California March 2009, http://www.environmentcalifornia.org/in-the-news/oceans2/oceans/now-and-forever-the-styrofoam-dilemma. 

Recycle on January 22

Be sure to bring it to the Transfer Station on Saturday, January 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for recycling by ReFoamIt, LLC during Carlisle’s first Styrofoam® Collection Day. This town-sponsored event is free to Carlisle residents.

Rinsed Styrofoam® food and beverage containers and trays stamped with a # 6 recycling symbol, packing blocks, coffee cups and plates will be accepted. Be sure that items are free of all food particles, tape, labels and cardboard. Food stains (e.g., ketchup) are okay. 

ReFoamIt will also take rinsed, plastic utensils bagged separately and also white (no pink or blue) Styrofoam® insulation board.

For more information about what items will be accepted, go to www.refoamit.com. For photos of acceptable items, updated information and additional details, go to www.carlisleschoolgarden.org or http://www.carlislema.gov/Pages/CarlisleMA_DPW/index on the town website and click on Styrofoam Recycling Day under Additional Links. Questions? Email: lzimmaro@alum.bu.edu.