Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 2

Last updated on September 11, 2021.

Yellow warning sign with skull and crossbones
Image by OpenIcons from Pixabay

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced polystyrene, which we commonly refer to as Styrofoam, food packaging. This type of plastic is terrible for the environment and human health. Today, we’ll look at the toxicity of polystyrene in depth.

After watching friends and coworkers repeatedly reheat their take-out and leftovers in polystyrene, I decided to write a post about it. I had known polystyrene was potentially toxic for a long time, but I had no idea of the breadth of the problem.

Chemicals Leach from Containers into Food

Polystyrene leaches styrene and benzene, chemicals that have known toxic properties, into food. In testing, one scientific journal independently tested and found that polystyrene leaches more toxins when in contact with high-temperature contents and into foods with higher fat content.1 What does this mean? It means that if you buy hot food, fatty food, soup, or coffee and it is packaged in polystyrene, some of the chemicals from the container leach into your food. Over time, these chemicals can cause severe health problems.

“Styrene is likely to leach when it comes in contact with fatty foods, hot beverages, and especially alcohol. When thinking about the kinds of foods that typically end up in Styrofoam containers (fatty foods) and cups (hot coffee), it seems as though the exact kinds of items Styrofoam contains are exactly the kind of items it should never touch.” -The Green Dining Alliance2

Melted polystyrene spots from hot food in a polystyrene container.
I recently went to a BBQ restaurant in Dayton, TN. They serve most of their food in polystyrene containers. My fried okra side melted the polystyrene and those chemicals certainly leached into my food. I didn’t eat the okra, I dumped it out so that I could photograph the container. I likely will never dine at that place again. It really concerns me that people eat food out of these types of containers every day! Photo by me
Melted polystyrene spots from hot food in a polystyrene container.
Photo by me

Known Toxicity

When I searched “polystyrene human health” I got more than 13 million results. After reading many articles, I realized that all organizations and even the government, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), know that polystyrene is harmful to human health as well as land and marine environments. Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the migration of styrene from packaging into food!

Study after study shows that chemicals from polystyrene leach into foods and beverages, especially with higher temperatures and food with higher fat content. And study after study shows that styrene is dangerous to human health. In fact, most agencies caution against the use of polystyrene because of the known health hazards, including:

        • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
        • The World Health Organization (WHO)
        • The International Agency for Research on Cancer
        • National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences
        • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
        • National Research Council (NRC)
        • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
        • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
        • The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Take-out in polystyrene containers
Image by albedo20 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Known Carcinogen

Styrene exposure increases the risk of leukemia and lymphoma and is a neurotoxin. This alone is enough reason to avoid polystyrene containers. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reclassified styrene as a probable carcinogen.3 While the EPA does not classify it as a carcinogen, it noted that animal cancer studies provided some evidence for carcinogenicity.4 Several of the organizations mentioned above, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Department of Health and Human Services consider it to be carcinogenic.

Hormone Disruption

There are countless studies that show certain types of plastics contain known hormone disruptors. Those chemicals often mimic estrogen and they seep into food and beverages (including breastmilk). In 2014, Environmental Health tested 11 samples of polystyrene and consistently found estrogen seepage after exposure to intense steam or ultraviolet rays5. Since polystyrene is a type of plastic, this is just one more reason to avoid polystyrene containers.

It is terrifying that many schools use foam trays for cafeteria food. Hormone disruption in young children prevents them from developing normally, can affect their ability to reproduce as adults, and can set them up to be prone to other diseases.

Polystyrene food tray
Image by Laura Taylor on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Other Health Hazards

Styrene exposure can come from other sources, such as photocopier toner, automobile exhaust, and plastics manufacturing. Exposure can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, mucous membranes, the upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal irritation. Chronic exposure can cause neurological problems such as depression, headaches, fatigue, weakness, hearing loss, and disrupted kidney function.6

Additional Unknown Chemicals

There are many chemicals and ingredients that are not tested for and not regulated by the EPA and FDA. While this may seem surprising, the standard operating procedure in the United States is to allow the chemical to be used until a known hazard is not only discovered, but proven. Essentially, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

Hefty polystyrene container
Hefty polystyrene container, photo by me

Exposure through Manufacturing

Anyone who lives near or works in polystyrene manufacturing sites are at risk of even greater health problems due to respiratory exposure. The Clean Water Action organization noted that “occupational exposure to Styrene increases [the] risk of lymphoma, leukemia, lung tumors, pancreatic cancer, urinary bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer. High rates of neurotoxicological effects have been reported in workers,” as well as decreased sperm counts.”7 These plants also emit a toxic and volatile gas called pentane, often used as a blowing agent in the production of polystyrene. 

“Over fifty chemical byproducts are released during the manufacturing of polystyrene, contaminating the air, water and communities that live near these facilities.” Children’s Environmental Health Network

What You Can Do

Polystyrene is toxic to human health. When ordering take-out, ask the restaurant if they use “Styrofoam” or polystyrene containers, and if they do, you can either ask if they have an alternative type of container 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. 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

Last, polystyrene is the most common type of #6 plastic and is largely not recyclable because of food contamination. In Part 3, I will cover the problems with recycling and the environmental damage polystyrene causes. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

“Styrene,” Report on Carcinogens, 14th Edition, National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services.

Report, “What’s the Package? Unveiling the Toxic Secrets of Food and Beverage Packaging,” Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, August 2016.

Article, “Leaching of styrene and other aromatic compounds in drinking water from PS bottles,” by Maqbool Ahmad and Ahmad S. Bajahlan, Journal of Environmental Sciences, 19 (2007), p. 421–426, accessed September 12, 2021.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 1

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Black Styrofoam take out container
Photo from www.webstaurantstore.com

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

Styrofoam food container
Styrofoam food container. Image by Aislan Máximo “Max” on Pixabay

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.

Added Chemicals

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

Chicken, rice, and vegetables in polystyrene container
Image by Vitalis Arnoldus from Pixabay

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.

Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging.
Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging. Photos by me

Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging.

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

Looking Forward

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 microwavePolystyrene 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!

 

Additional Resource:

Article, “Is the 30-Year-Long Styrofoam War Nearing Its End?” by Katherine Martinelli, JSTOR Daily, 

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 6

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Another plastic product graphic
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If you’ve been following my series on the Packaging Industry, hopefully, you’ve found it informative! In my last article, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Today, I’ll tell you about one type of EPR, called Take-back programs.

Take-back programs are designed to ‘take back’ discarded items that are not accepted in regular recycling streams like curbside pickup. These programs are typically separate from municipal programs. They are often hosted by manufacturers or companies, for a variety of purposes.

Purposes of Take-Back Programs

Take-back programs exist for several reasons:

        • To reduce contamination of municipal recycling efforts
        • For recycling, at least parts of the items
        • To prevent toxic materials from entering landfilled
        • Simply to draw in customers

It is often a combination of one or two of those reasons. “Some collections, like the ones for e-waste and plastic bags, are often not so much a recycling effort as an attempt to reduce contamination of municipal solid waste streams and ensure proper disposal,” wrote Chris Daly in The Future of Packaging.

Earth friendly graphic
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ are good for business

Many people want to buy from companies that ‘take back’ or recycle items. “We know that consumers are more likely to patronize companies committed to making positive social and environmental impacts,” wrote Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle.1 He noted that many companies have had an influx of marketing campaigns in recent years for consumers to bring back their containers for recycling, but that not all companies are actually socially responsible and transparent in the process.

Sometimes this is greenwashing! If a company cannot actually fulfill its promise of recycling or taking back items, then that is false advertising.

“In the face of increasing demand for more corporate social responsibility and environmental-friendliness, however, the authenticity of some of these recycling programs is questionable.” -Chris Daly

Types of Take-Back Programs

There are many types of take-back programs, so I am presenting the most common ones here.

Computer waste
Computer and other e-waste. Image by dokumol from Pixabay

Plastic Bags, Styrofoam, and Electronics Take-Back Programs

Many stores accept things that typically cannot be recycled, such as plastic grocery bags, styrofoam, and electronics. These programs are good for businesses because they generate foot traffic and brand affinity. This also prevents those items from going to a landfill. It also prevents them from going into your curbside bin, where they will contaminate recycling. Grocery stores, such as Publix, accept plastic bags, #4 plastic bags and Amazon Prime type shipping envelopes, toilet paper wrap, produce and bread bags, dry cleaning bags, styrofoam egg cartons, and styrofoam meat trays. Staples and Best Buy take back many electronic items for recycling. Many electronics companies, such as Samsung,2 have take-back programs of their own, through the mail or drop sites.

While it’s not clear what happens to any of those items, at least there’s a chance that some of those are actually recycled. Also, toxic materials will not leach into groundwater from landfills. In the meantime, these companies appear to be eco-friendly. They can also physically draw you into the stores. Might as well pick up some milk and eggs or printer paper, or maybe check out the new iPhones since you’re already there?

Plastic bag from Food City
Plastic bag from Food City. Photo by me
Publix

Publix states that “by inspiring customers to recycle these items, we ensure they are disposed of properly and keep them out of the environment and landfills.” It is unclear if these items are actually recycled as they do not specify what they do with the items. The corporation indicates that they are collected at their return centers and “then processed and sold to be made into other items.”3 That’s vague, but I still respected Publix for the effort.

Until I read that Publix actually claims that plastic bags are more sustainable than paper bags! In fact, the entire post is dedicated to promoting plastic over paper. I am appalled and extremely disappointed in Publix for making false claims such as “plastic bags use 71% less energy to produce than paper bags.” Among the many others, “using paper bags generates almost five times more solid waste than using plastic bags,” is similarly outrageous.4

Recycling bins at Publix. Photo by me
Amazon Prime envelopes
Amazon Prime plastic envelopes, accepted at some grocery stores for “recycling.” Note that Amazon does not take these back directly. Photo by me
A Microwave

A few years ago, I had a Hamilton Beach brand microwave that stopped working. I begrudgingly replaced it with a new microwave and immediately searched for a proper way to dispose of it but to no avail. I found out that Hamilton Beach will recycle and “properly dispose” of their products if you mail them to them at your cost.5 So I measured and weighed the microwave and looked up the shipping cost on USPS – and it would have been $41! So instead I put it in my shed and forgot about it for a while.

Last year, I called Staples to see if they accepted microwaves. They told me on the phone that yes, they do accept microwaves. So I loaded it in the car and took it to my local Staples. When I got to the service desk, I again asked if they’d recycle the microwave. They said yes. However, when I was researching for this post this week, I discovered that their site says they do not accept kitchen appliances. Now I wonder if that microwave was recycled, or if it was tossed in the trash after all. I guess I’ll never know, but I sure tried.

Brother brand printer ink cartridges.
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

Ink Cartridges, Light Bulbs, and Rechargeable Batteries Take-Back Programs

These programs are designed to keep contaminants out of landfills, as all three types of these items contain toxic materials. A few companies offer “rewards” in exchange for recycling. For example, Staples offers $2 back in rewards per recycled ink cartridge. This creates brand loyalty, as you are more likely to buy your ink there regularly if you are trying to use this rewards program. In fact, you have to – their rules state that you can earn the $2 per cartridge “if the member has spent at least $30 in ink and/or toner purchases at Staples over the previous 180 days.” This is only a good deal if you buy enough ink to keep up with that. At least these cartridges are likely recycled. Other companies, such as HP, have many ways for consumers and businesses to recycle their ink cartridges and electronics.6

Many hardware stores and home improvement centers, such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot, take back used compact fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries. Batteries Plus Bulbs will accept certain types of light bulbs and batteries, although not alkaline. For alkaline battery recycling, see my article from earlier this year.

Compact fluorescent light bulb
Compact fluorescent light bulb, image courtesy of Pixabay

Textile Recycling

The textile industry is notoriously wasteful, especially now that major retailers promote new fashion trends weekly rather than seasonally. But there are a few companies that have take-back programs. Patagonia may be the best example of this as they’ve had the program for a long time, don’t push new trends weekly, and stand by the quality of their products. Patagonia accepts all its products for recycling if the items can no longer be repaired or donated.7

Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe product claims to take their old shoes grind them down to use in performance products and sports surfaces.8 The NorthFace and Levi’s are among others that take back some of their clothing for reuse or recycling. However, please know that clothing is so disposable in western society that second-hand clothing is overwhelming other parts of the world, creating waste problems in those areas. The solution for textiles is to buy less clothing, wear your clothing for a long time, and buy second-hand when possible.

Donated clothing stacks at a Goodwill outlet being prepared to be sent to various aftermarkets.
“A tour of the Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN, in April 2019. Goodwill processes and recycles enormous amounts of material. Its outlets take in things that didn’t sell in Goodwill stores and separates them for various aftermarkets.” Photo by MPCA Photos on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Solutions

Take-back programs offer a solution for some items that are hard to dispose of, such as computers, batteries, and light bulbs. It isn’t clear if these programs result in real recycling. Sometimes the companies are not transparent about their take-back program details. The real solution is for companies to invest in a system that can make these items reusable, in a circular economy or closed-loop system. We also need to consume less in general.

In my next post, I’ll examine two types of take-back programs that have high success rates. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“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

 

Footnotes: