What’s bright white, weighs almost nothing, and is probably in all of our houses in one form or another? Whipped cream? No. It’s expanded polystyrene! Often mistakenly referred to as Styrofoam (a trade-marked product made by Dow Chemical which is used mostly as rigid building insulation), polystyrene also is known as #6 plastic. This plastic foam has insinuated itself into our lives as coffee cups, plates and bowls, meat trays, cafeteria trays, packing peanuts and other shaped packing materials, coolers, insulation in electrical outlets, pipe insulation, various floats, and craft materials. In these various forms, polystyrene ends up as solid waste in landfills or incinerators. In addition, because it is so light in weight, it is easily blown away by wind, resulting in litter on our roadsides, beaches, and waterways.
Although the manufacturers of plastic foam maintain that it can be recycled, it is very difficult to find any recycler who will take it because it is not economical to re-use. Because of its chemical makeup it cannot be completely incinerated. However, it is flammable, and when used in construction it must be hidden behind another material that is not flammable (e.g., concrete, metal) or treated with flame retardants. It does not easily biodegrade, but it does break up into smaller and smaller pieces, until, as a part of the aggregate waste gyres circulating in our oceans, it is consumed by fish and birds that can be killed by it if they eat enough. It is unknown how much of a threat this poses to humans who eat the fish.
We have known for a long time that polystyrene was creating litter and disposal problems. Twenty-two years ago McDonald’s began phasing out the use of plastic foam in their cups and food packaging. In the 1980s, cities and towns began to ban the use of plastic foam in food containers. The Freeport, Maine, ban went into effect in 1990, and this April Portland banned polystyrene foam food containers used by restaurants, cafeterias, food trucks, etc. Today, across America, over 100 localities have a polystyrene ban in place.
Even so, as you visit restaurants and stores around our area, you will quickly see that plastic foam is still widely used. Why is it so difficult to give up using this product? It is inexpensive, a wonderful insulator against heat and cold, it is lightweight, and in some cases, there isn’t a comparable substitute. Consider the meat trays used in supermarkets: polystyrene does not absorb the meat juices or the odor of meat. This, in addition to the financial and weight incentives, has meant that no other product has been able to replace the plastic foam meat tray. Manufacturers of foam flotation products have found that encasing the polystyrene in a covering discourages the breaking apart of the floats over time and use, and keeps it out of the marine environment. Encasement is not a complete solution, but it is better than nothing. Packing peanuts and other foam packaging can be kept and reused, or you can take it to a participating packaging store. The Peanut Hotline at 800-828-2214 can tell you the nearest shipping store that accepts used, clean packing peanuts.
We hope that you will join us by reviewing your uses of plastic foam products and opting for products that are kinder to the environment. Whenever possible choose a biodegradable cup, plate, or sealed float or insulation product and take your own leftover container with you when you dine out. Clever researchers are working to find substitutes for polystyrene foam. One of our favorites is Mushroom Packaging by Ecovative Design. Who will invent the best replacement for plastic foam? Maybe you!
By Joan Panek, PWA Member