Last updated June 20, 2021.
Take-out has definitely increased in popularity since the onset of COVID-19 and often take-out and leftovers are transported and served in what we colloquially refer to as Styrofoam containers. These containers present several problems because they largely cannot be recycled or composted. These items clutter up landfills, litter rivers, and pollute oceans. They are extremely dangerous to marine life because the containers break down into small pieces that many species ingest. Worst of all, these containers leach toxins into our food, and those toxins are poisonous to humans.
This is the first of a five-part series to explain the dangers of putting food into said containers. I want to acknowledge that I am neither a physician nor a scientist. I am, however, a concerned environmentalist, mother, and friend, and as such I must inform you that I feel it is imperative to stop eating and reheating food in Styrofoam/polystyrene containers immediately.
Styrofoam vs. Polystyrene
Foam take-out containers are actually made of polystyrene, which is how I’ll refer to them in this post. Though it has become a genericization, Styrofoam is a trademarked brand of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS), commonly called “Blue Board” and used in building materials and insulation. This material is light blue in color and is owned and manufactured by The Dow Chemical Company. The kind used for take-out and food packaging is actually Expanded Polystyrene, or EPS. Both types have insulating and cushioning properties.
“Polystyrene is the name for a whole family of plastics … but the foam forms have [a] disproportional environmental impact.” -Joseph A. Davis, Society of Environmental Journalists
What is Polystyrene?
Polystyrene is a chemically produced plastic that can be a hard or foam plastic. The foam is created by expanding the styrene (plastic), a petroleum by-product, which is accomplished by blowing various gases into it. Polystyrene is made from ethylene and benzene, both hydrocarbons derived from petroleum and natural gas, also known as petrochemicals. So those fast-food containers are made from fossils fuels and mixed with chemicals. That doesn’t sound too appetizing, does it?
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), promoters of all plastic despite the human health and environmental problems it causes, infers that polystyrene is natural when it is far from it: “Polystyrene is made by stringing together, or polymerizing, styrene, a building-block chemical used in the manufacture of many products. Styrene also occurs naturally in foods such as strawberries, cinnamon, coffee and beef.”1 They are referring to the minuscule amounts in those natural items, which are not mixed with additional additives and chemicals that are potentially dangerous. I find it appalling that the ACC makes such a comparison.
Many sources indicate that polystyrene is made up of mostly air, but that’s not completely accurate. The plastic is expanded into foam by creating air pockets between the polymers, but a gas or a chemical is used in expanding it. The industry formerly used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a blowing agent, and as you may know, CFCs deplete the planet’s protective ozone layer. Most CFCs have been removed worldwide following bans in the late 1980s.2
Today, there are two principal methods of production for polystyrene in the United States, according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The primary method uses ethylbenzene; the second is created through a series of chemical reactions using ethylbenzene, propylene, propylene oxide, and α-methyl phenyl carbinol.3
Use of Polystyrene Containers
Polystyrene is used for packaging materials, insulation, fiberglass, automobile parts, plastic pipes, carpet backing, boat hulls, and food packaging and containers. There are two types of EPS food containers. The rigid form is used for clear food containers, plates, bowls, beverage cups and lids, utensils, and straws. The foam form is used to make plates, insulated beverage cups, soup bowls, ice cream cups, clamshell food containers, meat trays, and cafeteria trays. These containers are everywhere: restaurants, fast-food restaurants, cafeterias, buffets, coffee shops, ice cream shops, movie theaters, grocery stores, supermarkets, etc.
Inexpensive but Harmful
This material is inexpensive to manufacture. It is also cheap to ship because polystyrene is so light, but it also makes it easy for the pieces to take to flight, littering our roads, rivers, and ocean. The ACC really promotes the use of material despite environmental and human health hazards: “Polystyrene foodservice packaging typically insulates better, keeps food fresher longer and costs less than alternatives.”4 But the true cost is devastating when considering the pollution, human health effects, and harm to wildlife.
“When considering the cleanup costs, carbon emissions, environmental costs, and potential health effects, the hidden cost of Styrofoam comes out to $7 billion, annually.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis
The world produces more than 14 million US tons of polystyrene each year according to earthday.org and the Green Dining Alliance. Most of that ends up in the trash or worse, our land, rivers, and ocean. Polystyrene is the most common type of #6 plastic and is largely not recyclable because of food contamination. I will explore these topics more in Part 3 of this series. For now, please know this, these containers leach harmful chemicals into your food, especially when heated. The best thing you can do is not to use them.
When ordering take-out, you can always ask the restaurant if they use “Styrofoam” or polystyrene containers. If they do, you can either ask if they have an alternative or decide to order from somewhere else. When bringing leftovers home from a restaurant, keep a glass or metal container in your car specifically for such occasions. It’s also a good idea to bring your own reusable coffee mug to coffee shops. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, please try to avoid eating food in polystyrene, and definitely stop reheating your food in polystyrene containers in the microwave. Polystyrene is toxic to human health. I will cover this in more detail in my next post, Part 2.
Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to keep up with this short series and others to come!
Article, “Is the 30-Year-Long Styrofoam War Nearing Its End?” by Katherine Martinelli, JSTOR Daily,