For today’s Zero Waste I’m going to dig into the story of polystyrene, a plastic that Eco-Cycle recommends avoiding entirely. In fact, the downsides of polystyrene are so great that Eco-Cycle is partnering with Environment Colorado in calling for a statewide ban on food-grade polystyrene foam containers, commonly mistaken for Styrofoam, which is the brand name for a building material manufactured by DuPont.
We’ve known for decades that polystyrene is hazardous, especially for workers involved in making it. The EPA has ranked polystyrene manufacturing as the fifth worst global industry in terms of hazardous waste creation. Using food and beverage containers made of polystyrene foam is also risky, particularly if the food or beverage is heated, which can cause toxic chemicals to leach from containers. The two components of polystyrene that pose the most significant threats are styrene, a likely human carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and benzene, a probable human carcinogen.
Some institutions and communities have already banned food-grade polystyrene foam. These include New York City, dozens of communities in states including California and Massachusetts. The City of Baltimore Maryland recently approved a ban and now the State of Maryland is considering one, which would make it the first state in the nation to do so.
Coloradans throw out more than 1 million polystyrene foam containers every day, and roughly a third of that discarded plastic ends up in waterways, according to Environment Colorado.
In Colorado, the Towns of Vail and Avon considered bans last year but did not follow through, perhaps because under state law, municipalities may not prohibit or require the use of plastic. Yes, you heard that right. Cities and towns in Colorado may not ban plastics, even those that contain carcinogens and harmful endocrine disrupters. Even those plastics that are not recyclable.
Of all the widely used plastics, polystyrene foam is one of the worst, yet is still used as a food and beverage container. Its negative impacts occur upstream with fracking, drilling, and mining to produce the fossil fuels used to make polystyrene and other plastics, and refining and downstream where the used takeout containers are either land-filled or wind up as litter along roads, in waterways, and in the oceans.
In fact, 6 polystyrene foam products were among the top 20 plastic items collected at beach cleanups, according to the coalition Better Alternatives Now. These and other plastic products are raising alarms about the health of oceans and marine life because they may leach toxic chemicals or be eaten by fish.
The evidence is clear: Polystyrene foam containers are unnecessary and dangerous. And today there are many alternatives that are more sustainable, much less harmful, and also affordable.
For example: Restaurants and institutional cafeterias that still use polystyrene, could switch to compostable bags, plates and containers, made from waste generated from harvesting sugar cane. Small to-go containers made from bagasse only cost about 8 cents more per item.
But when it comes right down to it, nothing beats reusable containers made from stainless steel, bamboo, and other more sustainable materials when it comes to reducing plastic waste.
If you’d like to support the effort to ban food-grade polystyrene foam in Colorado, visit our website and add your name to our sign on letter. Just got to our homepage at www.ecocycle.org, and click on the photo labeled Ban the Foam.
KGNU will bring you recycling tips and covering zero waste issues throughout the year in partnership with Eco-Cycle, thanks to a grant from Boulder County.