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 they are made with, and how polystyrene is harmful and toxic to human health. Today I’ll explain its poor recyclability 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 and keep local recycling streams free from those materials.

“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 to sort, clean, and recycle, those companies are rare.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation studied recycling polystyrene food containers and determined that recycling them 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 ultimately hauling it 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 article, I’ll explore alternatives to polystyrene food containers, the role of companies in their 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, Part 13

Last updated on February 19, 2022.

Trash littered beach
Image by H. Hach from Pixabay

Welcome to this part of my Packaging series! If you read my last article, you learned about refillable options for personal care items. Today, we will look at food packaging.

I honestly cannot say enough about food packaging because there is so much encasing our foods. Sometimes this is to make packing and shipping easier. Other times, food is overpackaged to create a false sense of sanitation, as mentioned in my first article in this series. BASF, a chemical company in the business of making such packaging, argues that “good packaging can enhance the cleanness and freshness of food, while offering branding opportunities for food manufacturers.”1 This is a false notion, and plastic packaging causes more health problems than not using packaging.

In fact, a 2018 European study entitled Unwrapped: How throwaway plastic is failing to solve Europe’s food waste problem (and what we need to do instead) argued that “high levels of food and packaging waste signify inefficiencies in Europe’s food system and major failures of the economy. Rapid growth in single-use plastic packaging has not demonstrably reduced food waste in Europe, and most plastic packaging remains difficult to recycle or reuse.” The study concluded that “successful initiatives demonstrate that single-use plastic packaging is not necessary to bring quality food from farmers to consumers.”2 The U.S. has the ability to address these same issues.

“Plastic packaging is often heralded as a means of avoiding food waste but it has not provided a comprehensive solution…The use of plastic packaging, particularly single-use plastic, underpins convenience, supports an on-the-go culture and, in some cases, extends shelf-life. But packaging waste has grown alongside food waste, challenging its potential to contribute to reducing food waste.”3 

The Produce Section: Bagging

Produce in plastic bags
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The produce section is where I spend most of my time in the supermarket. When shopping produce, we are encouraged, even prompted, to bag the items. When I started going plastic-free, I bought my own reusable produce bags and continually use them at all grocery stores and farmers’ markets. You can buy bags like these, or even make your own:

Cloth mesh produce bags
Cloth mesh bag
Mesh produce bags
Mesh bags made from polyester or plastic. These aren’t ideal but they are reusable.
Cloth produce bags
Organic cotton muslin cloth bags

In her book, plastic-free expert Beth Terry notes that most fruits and vegetables have their own packaging.4 Produce like bananas, lemons, onions, garlic, and a host of others, have natural peels removed before eating. These do not require extra packaging.

Plastic bags have always been marketed to us as more sanitary. So much so, that you, dear reader, most likely cringe at the idea of not bagging your fresh produce. The truth is, that’s debatable and it comes at the cost of polluting the environments we live in. I wash most of my fruits and vegetables before I eat them anyway, whether they were bagged or not. 

Man holding unbagged produce over shopping cart
Image by CYNICALifornia from Pixabay

The Produce Section: Overpackaged

Plastic wrapping on produce can be extreme, and I’ve seen it in every type of grocery store. Such packaging is wasteful because it is so unnecessary. Here are numerous examples of overpackaged produce:

“Many single-use food contact materials, including plastics, may pose health risks to consumers due to chemical migration.”5 

Bulk Foods

Person filling jar from bulk bins at store
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

When I mention bulk purchasing, I do not mean the oversized packages of coffee, peanut butter, and toilet paper from Sam’s Club or Costco. I am referring to the bulk bins in grocery stores and other food product shops. You can fill your own containers, just have them weighed at customer service first so you are not charged for the weight of the container. You can buy foods like beans, flour, granola, candy, dried fruit, etc. from these bins. Use glass jars or reusable cloth bags and avoid packaging altogether. Also, avoid bulk foods sold in “convenient” pre-weighed plastic containers like the ones pictured below. They defeat the purpose.

Prepackaged bulk food items.
Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

There are companies nationwide that offer refillable food items, such as Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Sprouts of Colorado, Rainbow Grocery in California, and Sustainable Haus in New Jersey. You can find shops that sell bulk items by searching Zero Waste Home’s app6 or by searching Litterless.com.7

Jar filled with item from bulk bins at grocery store
My own jar that I filled at the grocery store. Photo by me

No bulk in your area?

If there are not bulk bins available in the stores where you live, you still have options. Always choose glass instead of plastic packaging, since glass is 100% recyclable and plastic is recycled at a rate of under 10%. If a Container Deposit system exists in your state, use it because it ensures a much higher recycling rate for all types of materials. Look for brands of dried pasta that do not feature a plastic window (and if you buy that, please separate the plastic from the cardboard and only recycle the latter). Reuse Ziploc bags from deli meats and cheese. Avoid individually wrapped snacks, as it’s cheaper and better for the environment to buy a larger package and separate the food into small metal containers or reusable snack bags.

Loop

Created by TerraCycle, Loop is a closed-loop model that partners with consumer brands to put products in specially-designed durable and reusable containers. This is a take-back program, or a container deposit program, which we learned about in Part 7 of my Packaging series. Here’s a two-minute video explaining the business model and one way we can solve the disposable problem:

For a while, this was only available in parts of the U.S., but now it is available nationwide. While I love this business model, it still encourages consumers to buy some of the same products without changing their habits much. As Tom Szaky mentioned in the video, “let them experience a throw-away mentality but be doing the right thing from an environmental point of view.” This does eliminate single-use disposable packages, but as a consumer culture, we need to rethink how we spend, how we buy, and what we purchase.

I have attempted to purchase items from Loop several times, but I find it expensive. I don’t mind the container deposits because I’ll get those back. But the products have an upcharge and unfortunately, I cannot fit these into my budget. This makes it inaccessible to many people who want to support the cause. The upcharge to buy products in reusable packaging should be absorbed by companies, not put on consumers.

“Reusing an object saves time, energy and resources and does away with the need for waste disposal or recycling.” -Loop

Convenience vs. Environment

Our desire for convenience, driven by marketing and busy lifestyles, is killing the environment with packaging alone. Many argue that consumers have to change the way they shop; others argue that companies must change the packaging for items consumers buy. I think both are right – companies and consumers must change. Chris Daly of PepsiCo. believes that the convenience of packaging will continue because it is less work for the consumer. “Because these habits will be slow to change, we must continue to focus on improving the packaging that consumers take home and planning better for what happens to it,” he wrote in The Future of Packaging. Additionally, stores have to implement expensive infrastructure including the bins, scales, and systems for quality control and shrinkage.

But others disagree. In a well-written article, Karine Vann wrote that the use of bulk sections in grocery stores are not maximized to their full potential.8 These sections need promotion, normalization, and stores should educate consumers on how to use them. I believe this is entirely possible! We must do all we can to eliminate packaging waste.

“To truly reduce waste, advocates believe bulk must be more than just an aisle in the store—it must become a deliberate system that starts at home and continues seamlessly into the supermarket.” -Karine Vann9

Solutions

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” —Robert Swan, author and explorer

For more ideas, refer to my page on “11 Ways to go Plastic-Free with Food.” There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging on the internet and I’ve included some articles under Additional Resources below. Last, don’t underestimate the power of growing your own food in your backyard or on your balcony.

Salad bowl with vegetables from garden
Photo by Elias Morr on Unsplash

Remember, we can all make a difference in how we consume and how we generate waste. We’re all sharing this planet and its’ beautiful and valuable resources, and we have nothing to lose by working together to create change.

If you’d like to read my Packaging series in full, please see this quick guide highlighting the contents of each article. And if you’ve already read it, I thank you and please subscribe! I’ll see you in my next post.

“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:

Article, “How to Grocery Shop When You Can’t Bring Your Own Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated March 20, 2020. There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging when you can’t bring your own containers.

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.

Article, “Grocery Stores May Soon Offer Your Favorite Brands in Reusable Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated February 21, 2020. This features information about Loop.

Video, “Closing The Loop: The End of Disposable Plastics,” Fortune Magazine, June 12, 2019.

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Last updated on September 9, 2021.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”2 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.

Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”3 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”4

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.5 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

A person holding 'compostable' plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York.
‘Compostable’ plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York. Don’t buy these! Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“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:

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. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.

Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.

Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.

Footnotes: