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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.

Polystyrene foam cup

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.

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.


MassGreen has a webpage dedicated to polystyrene bans in the state, with information and advice on how to initiate a ban in your town. 


[1] GEC Student Union. (n.d.). The Environmental Impacts of Styrofoam (Rep.).

[2] Center for Disease Control: Environmental Health. (2009). Styrene Fact sheet. (Rep.)

[3] Fikri, E., & Veronica, A. (2018). Effectiveness of Carbon Monoxide Concentration Reduction on Active Carbon Contact System in Burning Polystyrene Foam. Journal of Ecological Engineering, 19(4), 1-6. 

​[4] Law, K. L., et al. (2010). Plastic Accumulation in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre. Science, 329(5996), 1185-1188.

[5] 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.

[6] Fernandes, D., et al. (2017). Environmental monitoring and biomarkers of exposure to styrene in chemical industry [Abstract]. Health And Technology, 18.

[7] United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2000). Styrene (Rep.).

[8] Chandra, M., et al. (2016). Real Cost of Styrofoam (Rep.). St. Louis, MO: Saint Louis University, 44

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