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:

  1. Website, “McDonald’s Clam Shell Container,” National Museum of American History.
  2. Website, About Us page, Dart Container Corporation, accessed October 29, 2020.
  3. Website, Sustainability Commitments page, Dart Container Corporation, accessed October 29, 2020.
  4. List, “Polystyrene: Local Ordinances” Californians Against Waste, accessed October 31, 2020.
  5. Article, “The Problem with Polystyrene and Other Non-Recyclable Plastics,” Californians Against Waste, accessed October 31, 2020.
  6. AB-619 Retail food: reusable containers: multiuse utensils,” Californians Legislative Information, accessed October 31, 2020.
  7. Article, “Starting Oct. 1, foam containers for carryout food will be banned throughout Maryland. Not everyone is happy,” Baltimore Sun, September 20, 2020.
  8. Article, “Starting Oct. 1, foam containers for carryout food will be banned throughout Maryland. Not everyone is happy,” Baltimore Sun, September 20, 2020.
  9. Article, “Starting Oct. 1, foam containers for carryout food will be banned throughout Maryland. Not everyone is happy,” Baltimore Sun, September 20, 2020.

2 Replies to “Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 5”

  1. Reading this article reminded me that when I was in the hospital recently , all the food was served in styrofoam. Even the trays were styrofoam! The only things that weren’t were plastic utensils and paper. I was amazed at the amount of waste.
    We will never get rid of styrofoam with these kinds of practices going on. I’m sure lots of large facilities resort to these measures.

    1. It’s true, we must address the use of polystyrene within large facilities. Some of the municipal bans address the use of it at hospitals and schools, so let’s support those bans. I think many large facilities fear the increased cost of alternative materials. Thank you for your comment!

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