The restaurant industry relies heavily on Styrofoam (polystyrene) to go boxes. Convenience and cost are the two main reasons for their popularity. But are convenience and low costs really worth health risks to you and the planet?
Styrofoam - chemically known as polystyrene - is a man-made, petroleum-based plastic that pollutes our atmosphere, land, and waterways. As a number six plastic, Styrofoam is technically recyclable. Unfortunately, it is difficult to recycle and often ends up in our landfills and waterways.
Styrofoam is non-biodegradable, it never goes away. Throughout its life-cycle, harmful greenhouse gases – methane and carbon-dioxide – are released into the atmosphere. The release of such greenhouse gases is exemplified when exposed to solar radiation in landfills. When exposed to water, it breaks down into smaller pieces, becoming easy food and/or traps for marine life.
Here’s the thing: landfill space will not last forever. Some places, like Chicago and New York City, have to haul landfill waste across the country as their landfills are over capacity. How long can we keep doing this? It is not ethical to continue to use harmful products for convenience and cheaper prices. We need to think about future generations who will be on this planet with the Styrofoam to-go containers used to hold our food, one time.
Harm to Human Health
Styrofoam contains chemicals that are harmful to our bodies. Styrene is a common chemical used in the production of polystyrene. Not only is the chemical on the Hazardous 100+ list, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies the chemical as a carcinogen to humans1.
Benzene is another hazardous chemical used in the production of polystyrene. Like styrene, benzene is classified as a carcinogenic chemical by the IARC3. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also classifies benzene as a carcinogenic chemical.
When hot foot contents are placed in Styrofoam to-go containers, the interaction between heat and the Styrofoam enables both styrene and benzene to leach out of the foam into our food, and ultimately our bodies. Consuming high amounts of contaminated food can cause vomiting, stomach irritation, dizziness, drowsiness, convulsions, and a rapid heart rate (Okunola et al., 2019).
Any type of exposure to styrene and benzene is harmful but long-term exposure can cause significant damages and is sometimes lethal. Studies have shown workers at manufacturing facilities who are chronically exposed to styrene experience increased depression, headaches, fatigue, weakness, and minor kidney function effects (Okunola et al., 2019). Long-term benzene exposure mainly harms our bone marrow, where blood cells are made. Harm to bone marrow can result in: anemia, low white blood cell count, and/or low blood platelet count.
We are not helpless! There are solutions, we just have to adopt and maintain them. Some countries, cities, and universities around the world have banned the use of polystyrene to-go containers. Styrofoam to-go containers are even banned in some cities in the United States. For example, Portland, Oregon has prohibited the use of polystyrene foam at restaurants, grocery stores, and nonprofit food services since 2019. The state of New York banned use of expanded polystyrene foam containers at restaurants and stores in 2021. These examples demonstrate that it is possible to prevent the destruction of Styrofoam; all it takes is time, effort, and determination.
So, what can you do, as an individual, to help prevent Styrofoam from continuing its destruction?
First, pick restaurants that use compostable and/or reusable products. Second, make a request to your favorite restaurant(s) to use compostable products. Or at least let you use your own reusable containers. Third, continue the conversation! Oftentimes individuals are not thinking about what happens to a Styrofoam to-go container after they use it once. But, if people become aware of the harmful impacts such products have from the production of its life to the end, maybe it would not be such a difficult switch to compostable products.
American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Benzene and cancer risk. Chemicals and Cancer. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.cancer.org/healthy/cancer-causes/chemicals/benzene.html
International Union for Conservation of Nature. (2021, November 17). Marine plastic pollution. Issue Brief: Marine plastic pollution. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastic-pollution
Lucas, A. (2022, May 19). Styrene and polystyrene foam 101. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://saferchemicals.org/2014/05/26/styrene-and-styrofoam-101-2/#:~:text=Polystyrene%20foam%20contains%20the%20chemical,effects%E2%80%A6the%20list%20goes%20on
NY State Senate. (2021, February 19). Legislation. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/ENV/27-3003
Okunola A, A., Kehinde I, O., Oluwaseun, A., & Olufiropo E, A. (2019). Public and environmental health effects of Plastic Wastes Disposal: A Review. Journal of Toxicology and Risk Assessment, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.23937/2572-4061.1510021
Portland.gov. (n.d.). Polystyrene foam container ban. Business garbage and recycling policies. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.portland.gov/bps/garbage-recycling/business-garbage-policies/foam-container-ban