Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 5

Chick-fil-a meal
Photo by young shanahan on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

In my last four posts on polystyrene food containers, I’ve explained how it is used, produced, and why it is harmful to human health as well as the environment. I’ve examined why it is not practical to recycle polystyrene even though its producers would have you believe otherwise. In Part 4, we explored supposed alternatives and why they weren’t totally effective. Today, I want to discuss corporate responsibility and how bans on polystyrene can help bring greater change.

“When you know better, you do better.” -Maya Angelou

The Role of the Food Industry

Chicken Salad Chick polystyrene container, use for dine-in service.
Chicken Salad Chick polystyrene container, used for dine-in and take-out services. Photo by me

The fast-food and restaurant industries can play a huge role in ending the use of polystyrene. Many use polystyrene for their hot and cold drink cups and clamshell containers, but they have a choice in what they purchase. Most dine-in restaurants already use reusable dining ware and the ones that don’t could make the choice to switch and install a dishwasher. The initial investment would be higher, but the constant overhead of disposables would disappear and trash costs would go down. For take-out and leftover containers, there are many ways companies can offset the increased costs of non-polystyrene packaging. They could allow customers to bring their own containers and/or they could raise the cost of their products by mere cents. Companies have the opportunity to be part of the solution in order to protect our own habitat.

A few companies have self-imposed bans on polystyrene. McDonald’s phased out polystyrene containers for its sandwiches in 1990 after their containers became a symbol for litter. These containers are so well-known in advertising and consumer culture history that the Smithsonian has those containers in their archives.1 It stopped using polystyrene for hot beverages in 2012 after being pressured by environmental groups, and they were supposed to end the use of cold beverage cups by 2019. Dunkin’ (formerly known as Dunkin’ Donuts) eliminated polystyrene coffee cups in May 2020. They estimate that this will remove one billion cups from the waste stream annually.

Sonic polystyrene cup found on ground
Littered Sonic polystyrene cup, photo by jnyemb on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The Role of Manufacturers

The manufacturers of polystyrene have an obvious interest in keeping it in use. But they argue against the environmental and human health problems stemming from it. They also promote recycling as a solution when it is not because of the volume. Corporations have the opportunity to do so much more than they do!

Case Study: Dart Container Corporation

Dart Container Corporation manufactures over 4,000 products including cups, plates, containers, lids, and straws for everyday use in restaurants, hospitals, schools, and homes. Their environmental commitment lists recycling polystyrene as one of their strategies, using what they collect at their plants and other drop-off facilities across the U.S. “We are the award-winning industry leader in creating and promoting recycling opportunities for EPS foam #6.”2 They sell it to manufacturers of picture frames, interior molding, pens, rulers, and foam packaging.

But they charge customers to collect polystyrene cups for recycling. They have a program called The Cups Are REcyclable (CARE), that offers Dart customers “an easy and affordable way to recycle foam food containers” for “Dart’s large-volume users, such as hospitals, universities and corporate cafeterias.” This provides educational materials, a collection bin, and a densifier (like a compactor) for a cost of $295 per month. The customer is responsible for the installation and maintenance of the machine, but Dart collects it once per month.3

Dart also has its Recycla-Pak program, a foam cup take-back program offered for sale by Dart distributors. Usually, companies cover the costs of take-back programs, not the customer. These are actually brilliant business models for Dart. They sell the single-use disposable cups, reclaim it at the same customer’s cost, and then resell the recycled products to new customers. Profit all around! But this isn’t the right thing to do and it inhibits recycling because of the cost.

Waffle House polystyrene cup, found next to the Tennessee River.
Waffle House polystyrene cup, found next to the Tennessee River. Photo by me

Bans on polystyrene

Many communities across the U.S. have instituted polystyrene bans, but it is a surprisingly controversial issue. There are those who recognize that we need to move away from polystyrene because of human health hazards and to curb pollution. Others think that replacement choices aren’t much better for the environment and that businesses will suffer from the higher cost of the replacements. I’ll explain a few of these bans.

Styrofoam cup and dead pelican
“Styrofoam cup and dead pelican,” photo by hikinghillman on Flickr, at La Ballona Creek in Venice Beach, California. Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

California

California has approximately 121 local municipal ordinances throughout the state banning polystyrene.4 Although there is not yet a state-wide ban in California, this shows how many citizens want to stop the use of polystyrene. Food containers are not recycled in California, “although the plastic industry has attempted to implement recycling programs that are simply way too expensive to be implemented in any meaningful way.”5 Besides impaired waterways littered with plastic and polystyrene trash, a 2004 report indicated that it was costing about $30 million per year to dispose of polystyrene materials.

In addition, in order to clear up confusion about customers using their own containers, the State of California passed Assembly Bill 619 in 2019. This new law now clearly allows the use of reusable food and beverage containers at restaurants and events in the state.6 I would love to see other states follow their lead so that this was allowed everywhere.

Maryland

Maryland was one of the first states to pass a polystyrene ban. “Environmentalists say the new law will have long-term benefits, removing a material made with fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, and that clogs landfills, pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways and ultimately harms wildlife, people and the planet,” according to an article in the Baltimore Sun. But those against it say “alternatives to foam don’t always live up to their promises — plastic containers don’t get washed out and recycled or reused, and compostable ones aren’t always compostable without special equipment. Instead, they say, they end up in the same waste stream as the foam they replaced.”7

Maryland has not fully implemented the ban yet, as COVID-19 delayed the deadline for schools and restaurants to stop using polystyrene. Trash collection rose 22% in Baltimore during the pandemic, largely due to take-out packaging. It began October 1, 2020 and it will be exciting to see the long-term results.

“If researchers find the law helps improve Maryland’s waterways, that could help guide future policy around the world and “turn off the faucet” of supplying polystyrene into the water.”8

Other States

The call to reduce the use of polystyrene has been heard in other places as well. Maine passed a ban on polystyrene food and drink containers in supermarkets and restaurants which will go into effect in 2021. New Jersey has pursued a ban on single-use paper and plastic bags at supermarkets that will also limit the use of polystyrene takeout boxes and plastic straws. As of this writing, it is awaiting the Governor’s signature. These examples show that enough people in those states were concerned about the negative environmental impacts of polystyrene, and they recognize that the best solution is to stop using it.

Polar Pop cup on the ground
Circle K Polar Pop cup made of polystyrene, found during a litter cleanup in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photo by me

Solution

While there are many alternatives, the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. It is my hope that polystyrene bans become the norm. Kate Breimann, state director of Environment Maryland, urges us to consider the larger issue of moving away “from the culture single-use” disposable items. She said implementing previous measures to protect the environment once loomed difficult as well, but have since paid off. “We think about when we had leaded gas and leaded paint, and people said, ‘It’s going to be hard for the industry,'” she said. “But now we have a healthier world.”9 This is absolutely true, and we all benefit from a healthier environment.

If you have ideas on how to end the use of polystyrene or single-use disposable take-out containers, please let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Why Styrofoam (Expanded Polystyrene) Should Be Banned Everywhere In The World,” Jeff Lewis, medium.com, May 6, 2019.

Report, “Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem: A Summary of Current Research, Solution Efforts and Data Gaps,” California Ocean
Protection Council and California Ocean Science Trust, September 2011.

Series, “Quick Guide to my Packaging Industry Series,” becauseturtleseatplasticbags.com.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 4

Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays.
Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays. Note that some supermarkets, such as Whole Foods (and Earthfare before it closed) have moved away from most, if not all, polystyrene food packaging. But polystyrene still abounds in other supermarkets including Walmart, ALDI, Publix, Food City, and many others. Image by Karamo from Pixabay

In my last three posts, I’ve explored the various aspects of polystyrene and its harmful effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment. Hopefully by now, you’re no longer reheating your leftovers in those containers. Maybe you’ve even requested that your favorite restaurant stop using them!

It is not practical to recycle polystyrene, although producers of it would have you believe otherwise. Today, I want to look at alternatives to polystyrene food containers and explore other ideas for dealing with this toxic material and waste problem it creates. Unfortunately, the alternatives all fall short.

Photo of a girl eating ice cream out of a polystyrene cup
“First Day of Summer,” photo by Dan Gaken on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alternatives to polystyrene

There are many alternatives for take-out food packaging including several ideas that have not been put into practice yet. Many alternatives are no better than polystyrene, in fact, many food packaging companies make false or misleading claims often omitting names of chemicals in their products. Let’s look at some of those now.

Plastic film linings

Plastic film lined paperboard, such as the standard paper coffee cups, cannot be recycled because of the mixed materials and they cannot be composted because of the plastic film. Some companies use PLA, which can be – but is not always – a biodegradable plastic film. Cups and containers lined with PLA would have to first be collected and taken to an industrial compost facility, which as you’ll recall from Part 2 of my Packaging Series, these facilities are few and far between. There are a few companies that now advertise these as backyard compostable, which is great if it is true and it is free of toxins. But this would require collecting the PLA lined containers or cups instead of trashing them.

Plastics #1 and #2

Using #1 and #2 plastics are better in that they are much more recyclable than #6 (polystyrene), but this assumes the items make it into the recycling. I know that many fast-food restaurants use recyclable plastics, but do not provide recycling receptacles at their locations. This forces any customer wishing to recycle to take those items home. Also, the volume of throw-away items negates its positive possibilities. We must move away from plastics and our reliance on single-use disposable items.

“Compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene

In Part 2 of my Packaging Series, I wrote about “compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene and plastics that are really neither, as they do not break down in regular compost, nor in the marine environment. These types of polystyrene require an industrial composting facility which, as mentioned above, is not available in many places. A food service using these types of containers would have to separately collect them and ship them to a facility far away – but realistically, many of these end up in the landfill. And nothing biodegrades in a landfill. Backyard compostable plastic has started appearing on the market, but I don’t know if these are truly biodegradable and toxin-free.

Molded fiber containers

Molded fiber take-out packaging seemed like a great alternative to plastic until it was discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical causes cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children. They are the same compounds in some nonstick cookware. Worse, manufacturers advertise many of these containers as compostable. But if PFOAs get into your soil, they will also grow into your plants, as these chemicals do not dissolve or disappear. Stay away from anything containing PFOAs (also PFAs). I’ve linked an article under Additional Resources for more information on this.

Large Scale Changes

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had access to composting through municipal systems and all take-out packaging was made from real compostable products that also did not contain toxic chemicals? This would take a large scale change to our waste management systems, but it would really change the world and make a global difference in our climate, environment, and health. Just think about how much waste we could keep out of landfills by composting food waste and food containers!

Sustainable fast food packaging idea
Sustainable fast food packaging idea by Ian Gilley of IG Design Solutions, made from biodegradable compressed paper. We need more innovations like this!

ReThink Disposable

ReThink Disposable, a program of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, tries to prevent waste before it starts. They advocate for reusable food container solutions (I’ve listed their guide under Additional Resources). They work with local jurisdictions, businesses, and consumers of take-out food packaging “to inspire a cultural shift away from the single-use “throwaway” lifestyle.” ReThink Disposable indicates that “the best way to champion our movement is by supporting ReThink Disposable businesses who eliminate and reduce disposable packaging.”1 While this program is only in California right now, we can do this and we all have the power to follow the same guidelines and practices. The organization offers multiple case studies on California businesses, including an entire school district, that switched from disposables to reusables.

Disposable cup infographic poster from ReThink Disposable

Solution

While there are many alternatives to polystyrene, none of them will have as significant an impact as simply not using single-use disposable products. Giving up these products doesn’t mean we have to be inconvenienced, it just means we have to prepare a bit more. Stopping the flow of single-use disposables just takes a little forward-thinking and intentionality, because the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. Check out my page on “11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food” for ideas! Once you stop using disposables, you’ll be surprised at how little you miss them.

As a society, we’re going to have to think outside of the box on this one. What about take-out places that allow people to bring their own glass or metal containers and drink cups? What about having a standardized exchange system? Restaurants could invest in reusable containers that customers could return for a small deposit, similar to a container deposit system. Once returned they either receive money back, credit, or their next container at no cost.

In my next and final part of this short series, I’ll explore the role of companies and municipal bans on polystyrene. If you have ideas on how to end the use of polystyrene or single-use disposable take-out containers, please let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Compostable plastics: are they PLAying you?” Aubrey Hills, Student Environmental Resource Center, University of California, Berkeley, March 10, 2017.

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, thecounter.org, August 5, 2019.

Guide, “Reusable Food Serviceware Guide,” ReThink Disposable and Clean Water Fund, 2015.

Footnote:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 3

Polystyrene food container from Popeye's, sitting on the bank of the Tennessee River.
Polystyrene food container from Popeyes, sitting on the bank of the Tennessee River. Photo by me

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I told you about polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers, how and what it is made with, and how it is harmful and toxic to human health. Today I’ll explain the poor recyclability of polystyrene and its environmental impact.

“The irrefutable evidence and research has been mounting over decades from various federal agencies, city staff reports, state staff reports, environmental clubs, and nonprofits,” pertaining to the negative effects of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). -Jeff Lewis, environmentalist writer1

Polystyrene container showing the #6 recycling symbol.
Polystyrene container showing the #6 recycling symbol. Photo by me

Recyclability

In practice, polystyrene food packaging is not recycled. Despite misconceptions, most municipalities do not accept it for recycling, even with the #6 recycling symbol. If it is collected, it often goes to the landfill instead of a recycling facility. Polystyrene is often contaminated with food residue which makes recycling impractical.  Additionally, most establishments that use polystyrene food packaging do not provide separate recycling bins, so customers have no choice but to throw them in the regular trash. Nothing is recycled when it is thrown in the trash.

Overflowing trash receptacle at Dunkin Donuts
Photo by Chris Caravello on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Even when you do find a place that accepts polystyrene, there’s no guarantee that the meat trays and egg cartons that you wash, save, and cart back to the supermarket actually get recycled, if you’ll recall from Part 6 of my Packaging Series. Often, those collection sites are simply to draw you into the store.

“Styrofoam, despite the #6 plastic composition and the misleading recycling symbol it often carries, cannot be recycled easily or cost-effectively – less than 1% of Styrofoam is recycled in the USA.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Cheaper to Produce New Polystyrene

Unfortunately, it is also easier and cheaper to produce new polystyrene than it is to collect, sort, and clean it for the recycling process. Thus, the market for recycled polystyrene is small and unlikely to grow. Companies such as BASF and Dart Container Corporation would have you believe otherwise. Both advocate for polystyrene recycling because they are producers of it as well. Many of the companies that do recycle polystyrene don’t accept food containers, they only accept polystyrene shipping materials. There are a few companies that do recycle used polystyrene food containers and have ways to clean them. But because food contamination makes food containers very costly sort, clean, and recycle, those companies are rare.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation studied recycling polystyrene food containers and determined that recycling it is not economically feasible. “The report found that the majority of Styrofoam collected for recycling ended up in landfill anyway—but at a higher economic cost and carbon footprint compared to being directly landfilled.” This includes the cost of collection, recycling separation and contamination, and ultimate hauling a second time to the landfill.2 The conclusion, as always, is to stop relying on recycling and focus on ending the use of single-use disposable items.

“The reason for the decline in price is that crude oil prices are so low that it is cheaper for companies to produce new Styrofoam products than to clean and reuse postconsumer products. This economic reality discourages other companies from getting into the market of recycling the polystyrene.” -Real Cost of Styrofoam3

The Volume of Polystyrene is Overwhelming

The sheer volume of discarded polystyrene is a problem as well. The world produces about 14 million tons of polystyrene annually. As with any type of plastic, we cannot recycle away the problem of single-use disposable items. We must stop it at the source; refusing to use them whenever possible.

Polystyrene cup left in the woods.
Image by Nik Stanbridge on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups are used for just a few minutes and thrown away every year.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Environmental Impacts

Since polystyrene is not recyclable, most of it goes to landfills and some inevitably makes its way into the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Styrofoam production is the fifth largest creator of toxic waste in the United States. Polystyrene products break down into smaller and smaller pieces and eventually become microplastics. Birds and marine life ingest small pieces because they mistake the pieces for food. Additionally, after the ingested polystyrene kills an animal, it can go on to kill again after that animal decomposes and the pieces reenter the environment.

“80% of Styrofoam ends up in landfills, and much of the remaining 20% in waterways.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Polystyrene does not biodegrade, even the alleged biodegradable and compostable polystyrene, as I wrote about in Part 2 of my Packaging Series. Again, most take-out packaging is thrown away. Polystyrene foam litter is common as it is lightweight and breaks apart easily, making smaller pieces that become windswept. The Clean Water Action organization noted important facts about polystyrene’s environmental harm:4

      • Expanded polystyrene (EPS) products and their associated chemicals (such as styrenes) are widespread in the marine environment.
      • Polystyrene is in the digestive tracts of marine invertebrate and vertebrate wildlife.
      • Polystyrene is one of the most common types of debris on shorelines and beaches worldwide.
A large piece of a polystyrene container, found near the bank of the Tennessee River.
A large piece of a polystyrene container found near the bank of the Tennessee River. Photo by me

“Why is such a toxic material in use? Polystyrene is cheaper than some alternatives. However, the environmental expense of polystyrene far exceeds the cost restaurants and grocery stores are currently paying to provide them.” -Massachuesetts Sierra Club5

Solution

After considering the costs to human health, wildlife, and the environment, the solution is to end the use of polystyrene food packaging. Many reports have a similar conclusion and call for banning polystyrene or finding alternatives (see Additional Resources below). We must call for businesses to stop using these products and for local governments to ban their use. Moreover, we need to greatly reduce the amounts of all single-use disposable products we use. In my next post, I’ll explore alternatives to polystyrene food containers, the role of companies in the use of it, and municipal bans on polystyrene. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional resources:

Video, “Plastic Recycling, Inc. recycles foam #6 from a MRF,” Plastic Recycling, Inc., March 25, 2016. This video shows the process for one of the rare companies that actually recycles polystyrene food packaging.

Article, “Now and forever: The Styrofoam dilemma,” by Catherine Solyom, Canwest News Service, Accessed October 20, 2020.

Report from cleanwateraction.org, “Greenhouse Gas Impacts
of Disposable vs Reusable Foodservice Products,” January 2017.

 

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Epilogue

Last updated on March 28, 2021.

Sea turtle under water
Photo by Jong Marshes on Unsplash

My thirteen-part packaging series was first inspired by a book.

This book.

The Future of Packaging book cover

I began this series over Christmas break 2019. My original goal was to write a well-researched pair of articles about the packaging industry, packaging waste, and what we can do as consumers to improve packaging. I had about 10 days off from work and I got up before my son every morning to research and write. I did not finish it over the break and kept working on it over the next couple of months. Finally, in March 2020 I published my first article in the series. Even at that point, it was only meant to be three parts. Then it became four articles, five articles, and so forth, with COVID-19 landing in the middle of all of that. There was so much to learn and explore that it just kept growing.

The Growth of a Series

The Future of Packaging introduced me to the complexities of the packaging industry. Upon further research, I began to wonder how I could make this much information accessible to as many people as possible. After it became thirteen parts, I put together the Quick Guide, a table of contents for easy reference.

I never intended this to be a thirteen-part series, but I kept finding topics that required depth and careful consideration. Packaging is something we encounter every single day, so I felt an urgency to stay focused on this subject. After I finished Part 13, the one about food packaging, I felt like I’d written a thorough and elaborate series. Still, I did not cover every aspect of packaging. I did not include the extreme packaging waste from take-out food, which has certainly increased since the onset of COVID-19. I declined to research cosmetics packaging and refillable cosmetics options. Last, I decided to not research pre-consumer waste, meaning waste materials created during the manufacturing process and before the product is ready for consumer use.

Receipt surrounded by supermarket products
Image by stevepb on Pixabay

My Goals

Of course, my goal is always that I want people to be eco-conscious. But what if we could normalize this consciousness? What if most of our daily decisions were environmentally conscious as the default? Maybe then we could call this mode of consumerism environmentally sub-conscious.  How tremendous would that be?

“If we accept sustainability as a core value within ourselves rather than something we should do to be considered a good person, then we are more likely to succeed in adjusting our habits.” -Beth Porter, author of Reduce, Reuse, and Reimagine

If my Packaging Industry series has helped even just a few people rethink their roles as consumers, changed how they judge packaging, and informed how they think about waste in general, then I feel like I’ve made a difference. That alone makes it worth the 8 months this took me to research, digest, and write this series. I certainly learned a great deal and changed some of my own behaviors.

Painted rock, "You make the world a better place"
Photo by Oakville News on Unsplash

But I’m not really done, there will always be more to write about. Packaging will continue because it’s necessary, but we need to create less packaging waste and better packaging that has a second life. We all have the power to consume differently, and we all vote with our spending. Just by reading this series, dear reader, you are making a difference. The information is in your mind and simply thinking about your own behaviors will have positive effects. You make the world a better place.

Thanks for taking this journey with me, and please subscribe. I’ll see you next time.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

Additional resources:

Website, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, accessed March 28, 2021.

Article, “Eat your food, and the package too,” by Elizabeth Royte, National Geographic Magazine, August 2019.

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Website, Packaging of the World, accessed March 28, 2021.

Website, Packaging Digest, accessed March 28, 2021.