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:

Update: Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 3

Last updated on February 4, 2021.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the death of my vinyl plastic shower curtain liner, and my decision to never buy plastic liners again. Plastic liners off-gas toxic chemicals in your home and the curtains can end up in the ocean after disposal. I tried using the fabric curtain without a liner, but it quickly grew mildew and mold and after washing it several times, it started to fall apart. So in my second post, I repaired it and then coated the bottom half of the curtain (where the most moisture accumulates) with Otter Wax.

This, however, was a complete failure.

The cloth curtain grew mildew and mold even quicker, and to the point that I could no longer clean it. I don’t know if I spread the Otter Wax unevenly or if I just didn’t apply enough of it onto the fabric. It seemed that the nooks and crannies of the fabric weave held in moisture easier. Perhaps Otter Wax was not meant to prevent mold growth in fabric that is constantly in a warm, moist environment.

Cloth shower curtain with mildew growth

Cloth shower curtain with mildew growth

No More Plastic

I refuse to give up and go back to vinyl/plastic shower curtain liners. Since first writing about my shower curtain pursuit in 2018, I have learned a lot about the chemical compositions of plastics and how they adversely affect human health. Captain Charles Moore wrote about this subject in his book, Plastic Ocean:

“Who doesn’t know that potent ‘plasticky’ smell that somehow we’ve come to associate with ‘new’ and ‘clean’?”

He cited a 2008 study that quantified fumes off-gassing from PVC shower curtains, in which they logged 108 chemicals, mostly volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates. “Prolonged exposure to these chemicals is associated with respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, and potential harm to the liver, the kidneys, and the central nervous system. They can also cause cancer.” There are now many studies about off-gassing plastics and they all indicate the same health problems.

Failing Forward

If you’ll recall from my second post, the gray cloth shower curtain was intended to be used with a plastic liner and not meant to withstand daily use without one. So I learned to invest in a better cloth shower curtain, one intended to be used solely. The lower cost of plastic shower curtains is not worth the environmental consequences nor the risks to my family’s health. I decided to purchase a hemp canvas shower curtain from lifewithoutplastic.com. Hemp fabrics inhibit mold and mildew growth which makes them a great option for shower curtains. It was expensive but it was the best option for our home. I’ve had it for just over one year now, and I will share my trials and errors with you.

Hemp shower curtain in package

Cloth shower curtains require special care

Overall, I like this shower curtain, but it is not perfect. We adjusted the curtain rod because this curtain was much longer than our old shower curtain. But then the first time I washed and dried it, the curtain shrunk by about 7 inches! So again, we had to adjust the shower curtain rod, which again marked up the walls. I learned that it is best to simply wash it in the machine and rehang it to dry.

The hemp shower curtain came with specific care instructions, and although they appeared unprofessional, I tried to follow them. We draw the curtain outside of the shower to let it dry out after every shower. But I do not launder it weekly. I have had some mold growth so I have boiled it in hot water to kill it per the instructions and that seemed to work.

Hemp shower curtain instructions

However, upon writing this post, I discovered that the instructions have been updated on the website and are different from the ones I received in the package. They now recommend washing it every few weeks instead of weekly. If mold appears, they suggest washing the shower curtain with half a cup of Borax and/or oxygen bleach in the machine on the delicate cycle. Last, they indicate to hang dry it – I wish I’d known that before drying it in the dryer and thus shrinking it that first time!

Hemp shower curtain in bathroom
This is the hemp curtain as of this writing. You can see slight discoloration at the bottom but I don’t find it all that noticeable.

Shopping for Shower Curtains

Obviously, stay away from plastic shower curtains, including plastic-derived fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and microfiber. These synthetics can cause as much environmental damage as vinyl, especially when laundered. Some of these “fabric” polyester curtains even contain chemicals to make the plastic fabric water repellent. Ingredients such as perfluorooctane sulfonate, a chemical known to cause cancer and has a Proposition 65 warning, is just one example I found on Kohls’ website. If you do happen to find a cotton and “chemical-free” shower curtain at a department store, these almost always recommend using a liner with the curtain, defeating the purpose of switching to a fabric shower curtain. I’ve found examples of those on Target’s website.

Look for hemp or a hemp cotton blend. If you can’t find a hemp curtain in your price range, get a cotton curtain so that you can wash it regularly. Read the fine print you know exactly what type of fabric it is. Check the details as some fabric curtains have a disclaimer such as, “recommend using with a shower curtain liner.” This often indicates that the curtain cannot withstand constant water exposure and will not last very long. Also, read the reviews to help determine durability and quality.

Another option is reclaimed sailcloth, which I mentioned in a previous post. This is what I’d like to purchase someday as long as I can find one made of authentic, reclaimed sailcloth. These generally run in the $200-$300 range and I frankly cannot afford one right now.

Reclaimed sailcloth shower curtain
Reclaimed sailcloth shower curtain, from Etsy. Photo by seller

Conclusion

Other than having glass doors professionally installed, I’m not sure that there is a perfect replacement for a plastic shower curtain. Although a better option than plastic by far, the mold-resistant hemp canvas shower curtain is not perfect. This curtain does not round or cover the ends of the shower the way a plastic curtain does, so some water gets out and we have to clean up small amounts of water on the walls and floors after each shower.

Unfortunately, the curtain has begun to deteriorate the fabric on the bottom section where it gets the wettest and where mold grows. I think I’m going to hem it where the holes are rather than trying to patch it. It might be my fault for not laundering it often enough. But I guess I was hoping for more durability for the amount I paid for it. Still, this is the best solution I have at this time, so I will continue with this curtain. If I have to do something different, I’ll be sure to update this post with a Part 4!

Corner of curtain, falling apart
One corner of the curtain is starting to fall apart. It is also not very noticeable.

I hope that this short series has been helpful and saved you some time and effort. Thanks for reading and please subscribe. I’d love to hear about your experience so please leave me a comment below!

 

Disclaimers: This post contains one affiliate at lifewithoutplastic.com. All photos by me except where noted.

 

Goodbye Earth Fare, with Love

Earthfare's Hixson, Tennessee store opening
Earth Fare’s Hixson, Tennessee store opening, November 2016. Photo by me

If you haven’t heard already, Earth Fare is closing all of its stores, citing financial troubles. I was completely disheartened by this news! The company sent an email to its customers on Tuesday, writing “with a heavy heart” about the decision to close all the stores after 45 years.

We only have 3 healthy grocery stores in Chattanooga, Tennessee; two Earth Fare stores and one Whole Foods. We will now be down to one healthy grocery store in this region.* It is so disappointing that the southeast is unable to support more stores like these.

Unsafe and Toxic Ingredients

Earth Fare is a healthy and organic grocery store, one which does not sell foods that have a long list of unhealthy or potentially toxic ingredients in them. But here is their general food philosophy:

Earthfare's food philosophy banner

I created a free, downloadable pdf “List of unsafe, unhealthy and/or potentially toxic ingredients in food and products that you should avoid.” You can also view it here.

I was able to buy foods from the bulk bins in my own cloth bags and glass jars at Earth Fare in order to avoid buying plastic. I can do this at Whole Foods too, but again, Chattanooga is going from three stores down to only one that offers features like those.

I Will Miss Earth Fare

Earth Fare is personal for me and I will miss it. Earth Fare is where I shopped while on my journey of learning the value of healthy, natural foods and about the dangerous ingredients in our foods. When my son was born and was in the NICU for 2 weeks, there was an Earth Fare just down the road from the hospital and we ate many meals there during that difficult time. It was the grocery store where I bought organic ingredients to make homemade baby food. And it is still where I buy food to cook for our family.

I plan to shop at Whole Foods as they have a very similar food philosophy. However, they are more expensive than Earth Fare for many things. Also, the Whole Foods in Chattanooga is in a popular area of town so it’s often very busy and crowded, with an equally crowded parking lot.

In the end, life will go on. We have many large environmental and health issues to face! Please subscribe and we can learn together! Thanks for reading. And thanks, Earth Fare, I’m sad to see you go.

 

*I am aware that there is a Fresh Market in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They have a different mission than Whole Foods and Earth Fare. While I am not against shopping there, they do not offer all of the same food philosophies about ingredients.

Shampoo Bars & Conditioner Eliminate the Need for Plastic Packaging

Last updated on February 17, 2021.

Photo of man with head under shower. Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay
Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

Most shampoo and conditioner brands are sold in plastic bottles. Since we know that 91% of plastic isn’t actually recycled, many of us are trying to find ways to not purchase products in plastic.1 Recently, a colleague asked me what to do about shampoo and its plastic packaging.

Did you know you can buy shampoo as a bar?

No way, you say! Or, maybe you’re thinking ugh, what? Either way, stick with me for a bit.

Last fall, I wrote a post on the benefit of bar soap and how it can be purchased practically packaging-free. I use bar soap for showering out of personal preference. I always found that most body wash and liquid soaps washed down the drain rather than cleansed my body. Once I switched to bar soap, I felt like I got a better lather, a better cleanse, and found that I wasted less soap overall. An added bonus is that there are no travel restrictions on bar shampoo, so no need for little plastic travel bottles!

I first discovered shampoo bars on Beth Terry’s site, My Plastic-Free Life.2 I was excited to learn about shampoo bars and switched to them right away. But there have been some issues with various bars, so I’m reviewing those here.

Image of lavender bar soap, towel, and fresh lavender. Image by joe137 from Pixabay
Image by joe137 from Pixabay

“Up to 80 percent of shampoo and 95 percent of conditioner is made of water.” -authors Brigette Allen and Christine Wong3

How to use a Shampoo Bar

This part is easy! You just rub the bar between your hands like you would with regular bar soap, or directly on your hair and scalp as long as you are gentle. It’s only strange the first time. The lather of a bar is really satisfying, and I’ve actually come to prefer shampoo bars.

Plastic-Free often also means Toxin-Free

Most shampoo bars do not contain the perfumes, chemicals, and harsh detergents that are in major brands of bottled shampoo. This means you will not be exposing your body to toxic ingredients that will strip your hair, disrupt your hormones, or cause cancer. Yes, you read that right – many major brands of shampoo and conditioner contain one or more toxic ingredients. Under Additional Resources, I’ve included a link to a list of ingredients you should avoid, and also a link to review brands on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep site.

I will say that this type of shampoo does take getting used to. Most of us are accustomed to shampoos that strip our hair and scalp of their natural oils, so it will take a few shampoos for your scalp to adjust and not feel greasy. But this is normal and once you adjust, you’ll start to feel and see the benefits of shampoo that is not full of harsh ingredients.

Photo of the shampoo aisle at the grocery store.
Most grocery and department stores carry shampoo and conditioner exclusively in plastic bottles. Photo by me

“The number of shampoo bottles thrown out in the United States every year could fill 1,164 football fields.”-authors Brigette Allen and Christine Wong4

The Shampoo Bars

Here is a review of the brands I’ve tried, in order of preference:

J.R. Liggett’s shampoo bar

J.R. Liggett's shampoo bar

This is the first one I ever tried, mainly because I was able to find this locally at Earthfare (also sold at Whole Foods and Amazon). It is packaged in a recyclable paper wrapper. I’ve switched back to it several times after trying many others, and have decided this is my favorite. It lathers really well, the bar does not fall apart over time, and my hair is soft and clean.

There is a bar for every hair type: Original; Moisturizing (for dry, colored or damaged hair); Tea Tree & Hemp (fragrance-free and good for “itchy-flaky scalp”); and several others depending on personal scalp preference.

Sappo Hill

Sappo Hill shampoo bars, next to lavender sprigs

I really like Sappo Hill and it is my husband’s preferred bar soap. I discovered their bar soap when I used to shop at Earthfare, and I love that the bars were package-free except for a bar code sticker. After Earthfare closed all of its stores, I went online and discovered that they sell many more scents and that they also make shampoo bars! Their shampoo bars are mild and cleansing. They run a close second to my favorite (above) and are very well priced. I recommend this brand if you don’t like other shampoo bars.

Aquarian Bath

Shampoo bar from Aquarian Bath on Etsy.

My third favorite is one that I discovered through the website My Plastic-Free Life, called Aquarian Bath.5 This shampoo bar doesn’t break apart and lathers well. These are handmade, vegan, palm oil-free, SLS-free, fragrance-free, dye-free, and not tested on animals.

They will ship their products naked, meaning zero waste or no packaging, which is super! There are many scents and bars with ingredients for each hair type, including one for dandruff, so read each description to find the right one for you. They also sell other types of products with the same qualities.

Nourish Natural Bath Products

Shampoo bar from Nourish

Nourish is where I buy the majority of my bar soap for body washing. But in recent years, they’ve come out with shampoo and conditioner bars. I was thrilled about this because I love most of their products! However, while I like the scents and the clean feeling these bars leave in my hair, they have the flaw of crumbling about halfway through the bar’s life. This leaves several small pieces of shampoo bar, and those pieces get smaller and smaller, creating frustration. I’ve tried 3 of these and each bar had this problem. I’m hoping they can improve their binding process.

Lush Cosmetics

Image of Lush shampoo bar

I tried a shampoo bar from Lush Cosmetics and it crumbled halfway through its life as well. I did not enjoy the scent either but I highly respect Lush Cosmetics because of its naked packaging. Their products are handmade, vegan, and cruelty-free. This particular bar just didn’t work for me. However, I like and respect the company so much that I plan to try additional shampoo bars. Here’s why:

“Since 2005, we’ve sold more than 41 million shampoo bars, saving 124 million plastic bottles from ever being produced. That’s approximately 3417 tons of plastic saved, or about the weight of 30 blue whales. Imagine if everyone ditched the bottle in favor of the bar!” -Lush Cosmetics6

The Right To Shower Shampoo Bar & Bar Soap

The Right To Shower Shampoo bar packaging

I found this brand at Whole Foods, and they claim to help bring mobile showers to people living on the streets, which is pretty cool! It’s a large bar for the price and can be used on both the hair and body, which is an added benefit. These bars are vegan, sulfate-free, are made in the US, use Rainforest Alliance Certified palm oil, are cruelty-free and are packaged in 100% recycled carton paper. I love the promise of this product! But it does not keep my hair as cleansed as I’d like – I noticed some build-up on my scalp.

Photo of a woman's blonde hair. Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels
Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

What about Conditioner?

When I first started going plastic-free, I made my own conditioner and continued doing so for about 2 years. There are many recipes on Pinterest and I’ve tried a bunch. Most did not work for me – they were either too greasy (coconut oil-based) or left my hair tangly (shea butter-based). The one I settled on uses a combination of oils and aloe vera gel with guar gum as a thickening agent. Unfortunately, the ingredients are not all available plastic-free in the area where I live. Since the beginning of my journey, some companies have developed conditioner bars. Below are the ones I’ve tried.

by Humankind

White conditioner bar

This company sells all plastic-free/packaging-free products and orders are carbon neutral (meaning the company contributes to forest preservation to offset the carbon created from shipping their product). I tried their grapefruit scented conditioner bar and it is my favorite though most expensive. They are vegan and use all-natural ingredients. Unfortunately, it broke into pieces toward the end of its life. I found it very difficult to use 4 tiny pieces to conditioner my long hair, so this was disappointing. But it left my hair soft, manageable, and shiny! I plan to give it another try, and they also sell shampoo bars that I haven’t yet tried.

Nourish

Nourish conditioner bar, pink

I tried Nourish’s conditioner bars in addition to their shampoo bars. They have great scents and they conditioned my thick mane well, leaving it shiny and manageable. However, they crumbled about halfway through the life of the bar. Even so, this one is my second favorite and they are much more affordable than others. I plan to buy these again. They are vegan and made with natural ingredients. They offer a choice of packaging when you order, either compostable plastic or tissue paper wrapping.

HiBar

HiBar conditioner bar packaging and blue bar

I am still on the fence about this one. It is also a little costly and I don’t like the scent of the blue moisturize bar. But the shape is unique as you can see. The bar is made to hold in your hand while you rub the angled flat part of the bar directly onto your hair. This creates no friction or tugging and allows me to conditioner my hair much more thoroughly. The same goes for washing my son’s hair – I can conditioner it quicker without tugging, which of course makes hair washing better for him! So I do really like the shape but I may need to try a different scent. If I do, I’ll update this post. HiBar Conditioner bars are free of sulfates, phthalates, silicones, or parabens. They also sell shampoo bars. These are sold only in cardboard packaging, no plastic packaging.

Person washing hair in shower
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Let Go of Guilt

I’m not perfect. I’m still figuring it all out too. I got very frustrated once with conditioner bars breaking into small pieces that became unusable and purchased conditioner in a plastic bottle! I did at least buy Pacifica Beauty brand because their products are vegan and cruelty-free, as well as toxin-free. But I’m not giving up! 

Remember, the fact that you’re willing to try another method in order to avoid plastic means a lot. So if your attempts at switching fail, just don’t give up. You will find something that works eventually!

You can do this, and hopefully, this post helps! Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote or receive free items for any of the product reviews in this post.

Additional Resources:

Article, 15 Harmful Ingredients In Shampoos And Conditioners That You Should Avoid, Starting Today!” Skinkraft Laboratories, April 21, 2020.

Website, EWG’s Skin Deep, accessed February 16, 2021.

Footnotes: