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:

Tennessee leaders prohibit local governments from being able to issue bans on single-use pollutants

Last updated August 7, 2021.

I know. That doesn’t make any sense.

I read this article and was thoroughly confused at first. Why on Earth would anyone vote for such legislation?

Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019.
Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019

The physical copy’s headline is “Protecting Plastic” and is on the front page of the newspaper. The first sentence summarizes:

A surprise amendment to a state bill would make it illegal for municipalities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for many single-use plastic items that have polluted Tennessee waterways at an alarming rate.

This ridiculous measure was added on at the last minute. “The bill is being passed as an amendment to a totally unrelated bill, which pertains to county district boundary maps.”

The article, “Amendment to Tennessee bill would make it illegal for cities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for single-use pollutants,” explains that House Bill 1021 is just that. This would mean that there could be no single-use disposable plastic ban in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There could be no plastic bag ban or in Knox or Davidson County. No city or county would be able to lead the way for the rest of the state with a ban. And the State of Tennessee, so far, has no interest in producing legislation banning these types of materials.

They are called “single-use pollutants” for a reason

Often made of plastic, single-use items are created specifically to be purchased and used only one time by the consumer. The consumer then disposes of the item. Even if the consumer recycled that item, we know that only 9% of plastics are actually recycled.

Many single-use items surround food, convenience foods specifically. Here, I define convenience foods like fast foods, processed and packaged foods, convenience store foods, and take-out food.

Single-use items made of plastic include:

    • Straws
    • Disposable drink cups
    • Fast-food or take-out containers
    • Plastic utensils for take-out or fast food
    • Single drink bottles (soda, water, juice)
    • Coffee cups and plastic cups from coffee and juice bars
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay.
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay

In addition to those, think of single-use plastic bags. Feel free to read my posts on the film Bag It or on one southern coastal town that took measures in 2018 to ban single-use plastic bags to protect the environment. I think we should be thinking the same thing, and I know many agree.

Plastic bag found in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by me.
I found this plastic bag in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by me

“Shortly after the [City of San Jose] imposed its Bring Your Pwn Bag Ordinance in 2012, single-use plastic bag debris decreased by 89 percent in storm drains and 60 percent in creeks and rivers. Bag bans work.” -Anne-Marie Bonneau

The Tennessee River is already polluted with microplastics

In a study published late last year, a German scientist revealed at the Tennessee Aquarium’s Conservation Institute that there is an extreme amount of plastics and microplastics in the Tennessee River. More than other large rivers with larger populations. And that river leads straight to the Gulf, dumping those plastics into the ocean as well. So why would we stop local governments from trying to do the right thing by protecting the environment, along with human health? Why are we protecting plastic?

Plastic bottle floating in the Tennessee River. I was able to fish it out. Photo by me.
Plastic Powerade bottle floating in the Tennessee River across from the Tennessee Aquarium. I was able to fish it out. Photo by me

“Single use plastics clog our stormwater systems, pollute our waterways, kill wildlife and eventually result in microplastics in our water system,” the Tennesse chapter of the Sierra Club wrote. “Local communities know best how to handle their unique challenges with single-use plastics, and unless the state wants to enact a ban across Tennessee, the General Assembly should stay out of their way.”

Politics

Regardless of political party, if you’re a Tennessean, you are most likely connected to the outdoors. Whether it’s fishing, hiking, biking, climbing, or boating, Tennesseans love our outdoor activities. And we like to share them with the tourists who visit here. We want to protect tourism in large and small cities in Tennessee, many of which are connected to the Tennessee River. So what sense does it make to jeopardize our beautiful outdoor spaces by proposing legislation to make the environmental problems worse?

State Representative Susan Lynn explained that regulations and bans surrounding single-use pollutants should only be implemented at the state level. Local governments should not because they “stand to create a patchwork of very confusing local regulations that make it really hard to run a business and very expensive.” Obviously, I completely disagree. That leaves no place for one municipality to lead the way for the rest.

Tennessee Senator Mike Bell supports the bill as well. He advocates for uniform state regulations regarding business. He claimed in that article that Tennessee was rated “Number 1” in the nation for small businesses in recent years. I searched the internet to verify this information and was unable to find information. I did not that find a source that even places Tennessee in the top 5, including reputable sources such as Forbes and Fortune.

Another supporter of banning plastic bans

Grant Kidwell, the Director of energy, environment, and agriculture task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said he does not believe bans are the right way to deal with the pollutants. ALEC is a non-partisan voluntary membership organization of state legislators “dedicated to the principles of limited government.” However, placing a ban on bans at the state level is not limited government – isn’t that over-governing?

Kidwell’s work has focused mainly on energy, although he’s written at least one article before arguing that there are too many bad food and plastic bag policies. Even so, he wrote that “the type of container people use to buy food, clothes, or any other items is a decision that should be made by businesses and their consumers.” Great, let the people decide. But don’t stop them from advocating for a local ban through state legislation.

“We believe it’s better to try to improve public waste collection.,” Kidwell also said. Clearly, he does not understand that our waste management systems are broken. Or that single-stream recycling systems are inherently dysfunctional.

Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. I now try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by me.
Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. I now try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by me

Oil

The real worry is that those protecting plastics are really trying to protect oil and natural gas interests. Plastics are made from both materials, petroleum and natural gas. Companies producing petroleum and plastic products will protect their interests, and often over any environmental or human health concern. The United States is the largest consumer of oil by nation, consuming nearly 913.3 million metric tons of oil in 2017. We are also the largest natural gas consumers in the world.

What can you do?

I called both of my representatives’ offices to oppose the bill, and my messages were “passed along.” However, I am sad to report that House Bill 1021 passed the House and Senate and Governor Bill Lee signed it into law on April 12, 2019.

But you can ban single-use disposable plastics from your own life. Avoid purchasing single-use products!

Feel free to leave me a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you for reading.

 

Footnotes:

 

Homeschool Pre-K Lesson on Pollution & Environment

In 2015, I began doing homeschool pre-k lessons with my son. I would put together little thematic lesson plans that we would do together one morning per week. Each lesson would usually incorporate art activities, sensory activities, books related to the topic, a play activity, and writing. I mixed these up with the occasional music component, educational video, trip to a related museum, or nature adventure.

In late 2016, I decided to broach the topic of environmental issues and pollution. Even though he was only 3, I thought my son would get something out of it, and in retrospect, he did! So I thought I’d share some of the activities we did. Feel free to use or share any of these ideas!

Oil Spills

My son still recalls the activity where we put toy animals into blue water polluted by an oil spill. I was inspired by Almost Unschoolers which I found through Pinterest. They used feathers in their experiment, which I did as well as adding toy animals. Both showed how oil spilled in the water stayed on the animals. Here’s what we did:

We started with plain blue water to represent the ocean.

We started with plain blue water to represent the ocean. I used Sargent watercolor magic to dye the water but you can use blue food coloring too. Definitely place a towel under your container – it’s going to be messy and oily!

Next, I mixed cocoa powder with vegetable oil, as recommended by Almost Unschoolers. We started with feathers but then I quickly realized that he’d love playing with his toy animals even more.

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

We added a few more animals as we continued to play and experiment. He observed several times that the oil wouldn’t simply rinse off of the animals nor his hands.

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son had so much fun that he asked me to do it again several months later!

Recycling & Composting

Recycling sticker game from the Dollar Tree.I bought a sticker set from the Dollar Tree which included four disposal cans with stickers. The cans represented plastic, paper, aluminum, and compost. My son took the stickers and placed them on the appropriate can and he only needed a little help. It was a fun activity to do together! I also found a similar printable game here.

 

 

Pollution Jar

The last activity we did was to create a pollution jar. I got the idea from Pinterest but cannot credit the blog because it no longer exists. I asked my son to help me choose pieces of trash of various types of materials. We chose different types of plastics, papers, string, etc. We did not use any food waste.

Our pollution jar.

Then we filled the jar with tap water and put the lid on.

Our pollution jar.

We kept this jar for over a year. Over time the materials did not break down, especially the plastics. While that may be obvious to an adult, this was new and interesting information for a preschooler. He thought it was cool. I will say that when I disposed of it, the smell of chemicals from that jar was disturbing.

Other Ideas

We took a walk along the Tennessee River for that lesson as well, just to notice our surroundings. What sounds did we hear? What animals did we see? Did we notice any litter along the river? We talked about how the rivers and oceans are connected; that oceans are full of life; and that water and air are our most precious resources. Even if a young child doesn’t understand everything you’re explaining, know that they are absorbing some of it and admiring your knowledge.

Photo of my son at the Tennessee Aquarium.
We also managed a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium!

If you search “pollution lesson preschool” on Pinterest or Google, you’ll find a ton of additional great ideas!

I hope you can use some of these ideas with your little one. Feel free to ask questions or leave your own idea in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe below!

All photos in this post were taken by me.