Polystyrene Foam Food Containers
The ubiquitous polystyrene coffee cup epitomizes the battle between technology and convenience on the one hand, and sustainability, environmental responsibility and human health on the other.
Polystyrene is a polymer made from the compound styrene, a petroleum product. Polystyrene foam cups and food containers are inexpensive to manufacture and transport, relatively effective at keeping food hot or cold and lightweight.
But the environmental impacts of polystyrene foam are significant; discarded polystyrene foam cups and food containers never break down and stay in the environment forever. Some become part of the waste stream headed for incinerators, where burning emits toxic chemicals.
Others wind up in streams, lakes, rivers, or oceans. A polystyrene container may eventually disintegrate into tiny pieces, but it will never become actual food for bacteria or fungi, our environmental decomposers. Styrene, like other plastics in our oceans, is mistaken for food and acts like a magnet for highly toxic persistent chemicals which can harm or kill aquatic wildlife.
The potential human health impacts are also of concern. Styrene is considered a possible human carcinogen by the EPA, and many studies have associated exposure to styrene with reproductive problems and cancer. Research shows that styrene can readily leach from containers into food or drinks, especially hot liquids and alcohol.
Coral Gables, FL has a useful webpage on polystyrene foam containers, explaining what they are and how they can be harmful.
San Rafael, CA passed a ban on polystyrene foam in 2012, and has encouraged the use of compostable dishware.
Montgomery County, MD has been proactive in banning polystyrene, both as a container and loose-fill packaging. The county has a video about the ban on its website.
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 Cole, M., et al. (2015). The Impact of Polystyrene Microplastics on Feeding, Function, and Fecundity in Marine Copepod Calanus helgolandicus. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(2), 1130-1137.
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 Chandra, M., et al. (2016). Real Cost of Styrofoam (Rep.). St. Louis, MO: Saint Louis University, 44