Last year, I read the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers by Chad Pregracke. It was about Living Lands & Waters, the organization established by the author to clean up trash along rivers. His story was super inspiring, especially because I love to clean up trash (and would even do it for a living if I could make that work). This organization, based out of Illinois along the Mississippi River, performs large-scale river clean-ups. Since 1998, they have worked on 25 rivers in 21 states, and have conducted more than 1,100 community clean-ups.
“[Living Lands & Waters] hosts dozens of community river cleanups each year to help watershed conservation efforts with the assistance of thousands of volunteers of all ages who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty – individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and more!”1
So when I discovered that I could get involved with local clean-ups along the Tennessee River, I was more than excited! I was too late to sign up last fall, but this month, I signed up when an opportunity came up near my area.
This one was hosted by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) in partnership with Living Lands & Waters. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that serves as the first Keep America Beautiful affiliate in the nation to focus solely on a river. Their mission is to educate and inspire people to take care of the Tennessee River and show the impact of trash. Their volunteer cleanups are held along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries, an area spanning seven states!2
I took my family with me. My son enjoyed riding in the boats and meeting people. He really fed off of the energy of the crew, who took time out to make him feel included. I’m proud that he understood why we were there and that he gets why it’s important at such a young age.
It was a gorgeous day on Nickajack Lake! We picked up so much trash – hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam pieces, tires, broken fishing tackle and line, plastic lighters, plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, and many other pieces of broken plastic items. Even a section of a plastic dock and an entire plastic truck bed liner.
One of the participating kids, Cash Daniels, also known as the Conservation Kid (@theconservationkid), was there with his family. Cash is an avid environmentalist and ocean lover. He has organized many river clean-ups and is also a published author and public speaker. I had read about him before and it was cool to meet him and his family.
The volunteers all worked hard, and the crewmembers were like superheroes!
Their leadership and positivity are what struck me most. Both the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the crewmembers of Living Lands & Waters were super positive, highly enthusiastic, hard-working, and obviously happy to be doing this!
By the end of the afternoon, we had loaded two full flat-bottomed boats with trash and debris from just a few shorelines.
In the end, it was an awesome experience. I recommend that if you’re able and interested, you join a local clean-up in your area. We can all make a difference!
“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community.” -Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful3
Remember, the most important thing you can do right now is to stop using disposable items. Especially those made from plastic. Even when you think you are properly disposing or recycling something, so much of it inevitably makes its way into our landscapes. We have to turn off the tap when it comes to disposable items.
I hope to meet you on a future clean-up! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Plastics are made from chemicals and petroleum, which you read about in Part 1 of this series. Today, I want to tell you about the chemical contents of plastics according to resin code, the number on the bottom surrounded by a triangle. More importantly, I want to inform you of the ways they may be toxic to our health.
Resin Identification Codes (RICs)
The plastics industry created RICs in 1988 as part of their campaign to boost plastic’s image. They even lobbied to have state legislatures adopt them. But this little symbol on almost all plastic packaging is misleading. Many assume that the recycling symbol or RIC means that a package is automatically recyclable. However, that is not true, it actually only refers to the type of plastic resin used.
To reduce confusion, ASTM, the organization that regulates the RIC system, updated the symbol from the chasing arrows to a solid triangle in 2013. “However, manufacturers aren’t required to change their equipment to incorporate the new symbol, which is why you still see the arrows on many plastic products,” according to an article on Oceano.org.1 So it’s still easy for people who don’t know to mistake the RIC as a recycling symbol versus an industry tag for the plastic.
“Thanks to the intelligent strategy that the plastic industry came up with in the early 1980s of imprinting a recycling code on the most commonly consumed plastic items, a large majority of consumers think that the bulk of the plastics they consume are recyclable and actually do get recycled through their local curbside recycling program. In reality, only a small percentage of the contents of a recycling box is recycled.”2
The RICs / Types of Plastics
Please note: There are 7 resin identification codes, but that does not mean there are only 7 types of plastics. There are, in fact, tens of thousands of chemical combinations.3
Next, let’s look at the 7 RICs types, what they are used for, their characteristics, their chemical contents, and their potential toxicity. Note that this is not an exhaustive list; nor is each category exhaustive in the standard products or characteristics.
“Despite how useful these additives are in the functionality of polymer products, their potential to contaminate soil, air, water and food is widely documented…These additives can potentially migrate and undesirably lead to human exposure via e.g. food contact materials, such as packaging.”4
#1 PET/PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate
Standard products: Water bottles, soda bottles, salad dressing bottles, food containers such as cooking oil and peanut butter, wrinkle-proof clothing, fleece blankets, padding in pillows and comforters, carpeting, other polyester fabrics.
About: PET is the most valuable type of plastic and the most recycled. There are typically two types: one is made with a blow molding machine; the other is thermoform which is made by heating a plastic sheet until pliable and then molded into a specific shape. The main difference is in molecular weight. Higher molecular weight items, such as bottles and jugs made from blow molding, are more valuable than their thermoform counterparts. Thermoform, though more difficult to sell, is often recycled into carpeting.5
Chemical content: “A chemical called antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst and flame retardant in making PET, and this antimony additive is considered a possible carcinogen.” The amount in one single water bottle is minimal, but leaching increases with heat. Think of those water bottles stored in the car during the summer. “There is research showing that PET may leach phthalates too, even though the plastics industry says that phthalates are not required to make PET.”6 Regardless, think about switching to metal or glass containers whenever possible.
#2 HDPE: High-density Polyethylene
Standard products: Milk jugs, water bottles, juice, bottles, bleach, dish and laundry detergent bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, cleaner containers, over-the-counter medicine bottles, cereal box liners, Tyvek home insulation, plastic-wood composites, snowboards, 3D printing filament, and wire covering. It is even used in some plastic surgery procedures.
About: This is one of the most widely used plastics because of its versatility. It is strong, flexible, cost-effective, moisture-resistant, and resistant to most chemical solvents. It has high tensile strength and has both a high-impact resistance and melting point. “The polyethylene polymer has the simplest basic chemical structure of any polymer, making it easy to process and thus extremely popular for low value, high volume applications.”7
Chemical content: While this is considered a ‘safer’ plastic for food and drink use, there is evidence that these release endocrine-disrupting chemicals, especially when exposed to UV. “The main leaching culprits are estrogen-mimicking nonylphenols and octylphenols, which are added to polyethylene as stabilizers and plasticizers.”8 Those chemicals disrupt the body’s hormones and can cause cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.
“Nearly four pounds of petroleum are required for every two pounds of #2 (HDPE) plastic produced.” -Tom Szaky, Terracycle9
#3 PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride
Standard products: Think all vinyl products. Shower curtains, medical bags, medical tubing, shrink wrap, children’s toys, binders, school supplies, plastic furniture, garden hoses, vinyl clothing and outerwear, wire and cable insulation, vinyl records, carpet backing, flooring, credit cards, clamshell packaging, plumbing pipes, vinyl siding, window frames, fences, decking, other construction materials.
About: “PVC can take on a staggering variety of personalities – rigid, filmy, flexible, leathery – thanks to the ease with which it can be blended with other chemicals.”10 PVC is versatile as it can be adapted to many applications depending on the plasticizing additives. It is strong and resistant to moisture and abrasion. It can be produced clear or colored. About three-quarters of all vinyl produced goes into construction applications.
Chemical content: PVC is known as the poison plastic because it leaches toxins for its entire life cycle and should be avoided whenever possible. Vinyl is manufactured by polymerizing a chemical called vinyl chloride. It can contain up to 55% additives, mainly phthalates. The chemicals it may release during its lifetime include cancer-causing dioxins, endocrine-disrupting phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), lead, mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals. “The problem with PVC is that its base monomer building block is vinyl chloride, which is highly toxic and unstable, thus requiring lots of additives to calm it down and make it usable. But even in its final ‘stabilized’ form, PVC is not very stable.”11 The additives leach out and you can inhale and ingest them.
#4 LDPE: Low-density Polyethylene
Standard products: Film applications like bags, such as those used for bread, shopping, dry-cleaning, newspapers, frozen foods, produce, and garbage. Also used for shrink wraps, linings for cartons and cups, container lids, some squeeze bottles, orthotics, and prosthetics.
About: LDPE is a soft, flexible, lightweight plastic material, known for its low-temperature flexibility, toughness, and corrosion resistance. But it is not recyclable in any practical sense. Citing data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one large recycling corporation noted that “the overwhelming majority of products made from LDPE end up in landfills…Dumping tons of LDPE in landfills can have devastating consequences…plastic buried in landfills can leach into the soil and introduce chemicals into the groundwater.” They can threaten marine life in coastal areas, and “lightweight plastic bags can be blown great distances by the wind, ending up in bodies of water where animals eat them or become tangled in them.”12 Plastic bags causes huge environmental problems.
Chemical content: These can leach some of the same chemicals as #2 HDPE plastic. It is a thermoplastic made from the polymerization of ethylene. Ethylene is considered a building block of plastic, but it is highly flammable and reactive. It is created by Ethane Cracker Plants, which use an environmentally questionable process to extract the ethane to make ethylene. While difficult to avoid, steer clear of this plastic whenever possible.
#5 PP: Polypropylene
Standard products: Polypropylene is used in packaging, yogurt cups, sour cream and soft cheese containers, prescription bottles, butter/margarine containers, plastic to-go containers, leftover containers, freezer meal containers, the filter cases of some disposable home water filters, electrical wiring, and plastic bottle caps because polypropylene can withstand pressure. It is also used in vehicles for bumpers, carpets, and other parts. Polypropylene allows moisture to escape and stays dry, making it ideal for use in disposable diapers.
About: Polypropylene is sometimes referred to as the “safe” plastic, but there really is no safe plastic when it comes to food. All plastic has the capacity to poison us in certain circumstances. Polypropylene is a stronger plastic than other types, but it is generally not recyclable because there isn’t sufficient reprocessing capacity.Polypropylene is more stable and resists heat better than other plastics. So it is generally considered safer for foods and hot liquids because it leaches fewer chemicals (though it still does leach, which is why you should use glass or metal containers for your food).13 However, this is what many leftover and freezer meal containers are made from. Have you ever noticed rough patches or surface defects in your leftover containers? Any disruptions on the surface mean the polypropylene has been compromised, which increases the chances that it will leach chemicals into your food, especially when heating it.
If you have polypropylene leftover containers from before 2013, replace them. These contained phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). And if you do replace them, please buy stainless steel or glass containers and just avoid the chemicals in plastic altogether.
Chemical content: Polypropylene is a rigid and crystalline thermoplastic made from the polymerization of the propene monomer. There is ongoing research about the health effects of certain additives leaching from polypropylene, such as oleamide, a polymer lubricant and a bioactive compound. Oleamide does occur naturally in the human body, but the long-term effects of synthetic oleamide are not yet known. In a 2021 study entitled “Plastic additive oleamide elicits hyperactivity in hermit crabs,” scientists found that it may be perceived as a feeding cue by marine species, thus increasing the consumption of microplastics.14
#6 PS: Polystyrene
“Most recognizable when puffed up with air into that synthetic meringue known technically as expanded polystyrene and popularly by the trademark Styrofoam.” -Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story15
Standard products: The foam form, called Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), also known as Styrofoam, is used in egg cartons, meat trays, single-use food and take-out containers, coffee cups, vehicles, bike helmets, packing peanuts, and home insulation. The rigid form is used for single-use food containers, cutlery, CD and DVD cases, disposable razors, etc. “It is also combined with rubber to create an opaque high impact polystyrene used for model assembly kits, coat hangers, electronic housings, license plate frames, aspirin bottles and medical and lab equipment, including test tubes and petri dishes.”16
About: It may be difficult to avoid this stuff in home insulation, vehicles, and bike helmets, but it should be avoided at all costs when it comes to food and beverages. I wrote a lot about polystyrene in my series on Styrofoam and polystyrene food containers. These containers and cups leach styrene into food and beverages and thus enter your body. Styrene is known to likely be carcinogenic. It is considered a brain and nervous system toxicant and causes problems in the lungs, liver, and immune system.
Chemical content: Polystyrene is a synthetic polymer made from the polymerization of styrene. It is a chemically produced plastic that can be made into a hard or foam plastic. The foam is created by expanding the styrene by blowing various chemical gases into it. Polystyrene is made from ethylene and benzene, both hydrocarbons derived from by-products of petroleum and natural gas (also known as petrochemicals).
#7: OTHER Plastics
This is the catch-all category for all ‘other plastics.’ Any plastic items not made from the above six plastic RICs are grouped together as #7’s. These include acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, epoxy resins, polylactic acid (PLA), and multilayer combinations of different plastics. These are never recyclable except through a few rare and expensive take-back programs, because of the vast array of resins and chemicals mixed together. Below are some of the individual plastic types that fall under #7.
Acrylic: This is a rigid thermoplastic that is strong, diverse, and resilient; and it can be clear or solid colored. Acrylics are used to make bulletproof windows, LEGOs, dental fillings and dentures, airplane windows, aquariums, shower doors, vehicle parts, helmets, and even textiles such as clothing, tents, and sails. This is a stable plastic and is considered a ‘safer’ plastic, except for certain ones used in dental applications. Those, specifically acrylic methacrylate resins, are suspected to be cytotoxic (toxic at the cellular level) because they leach chemicals such as formaldehyde and methyl methacrylate.17 That being said, keep those LEGOs out of your toddler’s mouth.
Nylon: This belongs to a group of plastic resins called polyamides that include Kevlar and Velcro. Invented by DuPont in the 1930s, nylon was originally invented to be a synthetic alternative for silk, for example, stockings. Nylon can be fiber, solid, or film. Items made from it include clothing, toothbrush and hairbrush bristles, rope*, instrument strings, tents, parachutes, carpets, tires, food packaging, boat propellers, skateboard wheels, and mechanical and automotive parts.
*NOTE: Most rope and nets used in commercial fishing are made from nylon and present a huge problem in the oceans. The rope and nets break away from the fishing vessels and become threats to fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals who get entangled in them. Since nylon is plastic, it will not decompose and will remain in the ocean for decades or longer.
Polycarbonate:Originally designed as an engineering plastic to compete with die-cast metal and substitute glass because it is lightweight, strong, transparent, and shatter-proof. Polycarbonate is very toxic, as it is produced through the reaction of bisphenol A (BPA) with phosgene COCl and can leach chemicals into water or food.18 In the past, it was used in reusable water bottles and baby bottles until bisphenol A (BPA) was ruled toxic. “It is still a favorite for rigid products including CDs and DVDs, eyeglass lenses, dental sealants, lab equipment, snowboards, car parts and housing for cell phones, computers and power tools.” It is also still used in the large, blue water containers common in offices.19 This type of plastic is good for items not related to food or beverage. However, we should use it less overall in other applications when possible to reduce waste, because when polycarbonate breaks it cannot be recycled.
Epoxy resins: Known for high strength, low weight, temperature and chemical resistance. Used in many applications: high-performance adhesives, coatings, paint, sealant, insulators, wind turbine blades, fiber optics, electrical circuit boards, and parts for carts, boats, and planes. They are also used on the interior lining of most canned goods. Avoid these when possible, especially with food and beverage containers because they contain chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and epichlorohydrin. The latter likely causes blood, respiratory, and liver damage and is a probable carcinogen.20
Polylactic Acid (PLA): This is a bio-based plastic made from lactic acid, which is a fermentation product of corn or cane sugar. This is the most common bioplastic, used in a variety of products including clothing, bottles, weed cloth, gift and credit cards, food packaging, diapers, wipes, and disposable dishes. PLA is advertised as compostable but it is only biodegradable under industrial composting conditions, which is still largely unavailable.21
This large family of plastics was introduced in 1954. Polyurethanes do not have an assigned RIC, but they are worth mentioning because they are so common. They come in foamed versions that are soft and flexible for uses in mattresses, cushioning in furniture, cars, and running shoes, spray foam insulation, and carpet underlay. They can take on a flexible form for hoses, tubing, gaskets, seals; and they can be tough and rigid for items such as insulating lining for buildings and refrigerators. Polyurethane can also be made into thin films or coatings, such as adhesives for food packaging and waterproof coatings for wood. When it is spun into fibers, it makes Spandex, Lycra, and even latex-free condoms.22
Polyurethane is made from isocyanates, a chemical that is potentially toxic, as it is the leading cause of occupational asthma. “As for our day-to-day use, polyurethanes have also been linked to a skin irritation known as contact dermatitis through direct contact with such polyurethane items as a toilet seat, jewelry and Spandex tapes sewn into underwear.” It is highly flammable and may contain flame retardant additives that go in mattresses and spray foam insulation. Flame retardants are full of chemical combinations that are considered trade secrets, so the public does not know what potential toxins are present in their items. Spray foam insulation, even once cured, can off-gas isocyanate methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), which has been linked to asthma and lung damage.23
What You Can Do
The best thing you can do is to keep learning, which you’re already doing if you’re reading this article. Stay informed and be aware of what chemicals you’re exposed to through plastics, packaging, and additives. Avoid those which are documented as toxic or even potentially toxic. Additionally, remember that few plastics are actually recycled, so reducing the plastics you purchase is essential to the environment and your health. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
“We all need to separate the hopeful and increasingly fantastical act of recycling from the reality of plastic pollution. Recent data indicates that our recycling wishes, hopes, and dreams – perhaps driven in part by myths surrounding RICs – will not stop plastic from entering our oceans. Instead, if we truly want to protect the environment and marine life, we need to campaign for more plastic-free choices and zones, and for the reduction of plastic production and pollution.”24
Article, “An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling,” by John N.Hahladakis et al., Journal of Hazardous Materials, Volume 344, February 15, 2018.
In my series 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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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. They recognize that the best solution is to stop using it!
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
“25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups are used for just a few minutes and thrown away every year.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis
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.
“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
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!
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.