Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 4

Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays.
Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays. Note that some supermarkets, such as Whole Foods (and Earthfare before it closed) have moved away from most, if not all, polystyrene food packaging. But polystyrene still abounds in other supermarkets including Walmart, ALDI, Publix, Food City, and many others. Image by Karamo from Pixabay

In my last three posts, I’ve explored the various aspects of polystyrene and its harmful effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment. Hopefully by now, you’re no longer reheating your leftovers in those containers. Maybe you’ve even requested that your favorite restaurant stop using them!

It is not practical to recycle polystyrene, although producers of it would have you believe otherwise. Today, I want to look at alternatives to polystyrene food containers and explore other ideas for dealing with this toxic material and waste problem it creates. Unfortunately, the alternatives all fall short.

Photo of a girl eating ice cream out of a polystyrene cup
“First Day of Summer,” photo by Dan Gaken on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alternatives to polystyrene

There are many alternatives for take-out food packaging including several ideas that have not been put into practice yet. Many alternatives are no better than polystyrene, in fact, many food packaging companies make false or misleading claims often omitting names of chemicals in their products. Let’s look at some of those now.

Plastic film linings

Plastic film lined paperboard, such as the standard paper coffee cups, cannot be recycled because of the mixed materials and they cannot be composted because of the plastic film. Some companies use PLA, which can be – but is not always – a biodegradable plastic film. Cups and containers lined with PLA would have to first be collected and taken to an industrial compost facility, which as you’ll recall from Part 2 of my Packaging Series, these facilities are few and far between. There are a few companies that now advertise these as backyard compostable, which is great if it is true and it is free of toxins. But this would require collecting the PLA lined containers or cups instead of trashing them.

Plastics #1 and #2

Using #1 and #2 plastics are better in that they are much more recyclable than #6 (polystyrene), but this assumes the items make it into the recycling. I know that many fast-food restaurants use recyclable plastics, but do not provide recycling receptacles at their locations. This forces any customer wishing to recycle to take those items home. Also, the volume of throw-away items negates its positive possibilities. We must move away from plastics and our reliance on single-use disposable items.

“Compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene

In Part 2 of my Packaging Series, I wrote about “compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene and plastics that are really neither, as they do not break down in regular compost, nor in the marine environment. These types of polystyrene require an industrial composting facility which, as mentioned above, is not available in many places. A food service using these types of containers would have to separately collect them and ship them to a facility far away – but realistically, many of these end up in the landfill. And nothing biodegrades in a landfill. Backyard compostable plastic has started appearing on the market, but I don’t know if these are truly biodegradable and toxin-free.

Molded fiber containers

Molded fiber take-out packaging seemed like a great alternative to plastic until it was discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical causes cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children. They are the same compounds in some nonstick cookware. Worse, manufacturers advertise many of these containers as compostable. But if PFOAs get into your soil, they will also grow into your plants, as these chemicals do not dissolve or disappear. Stay away from anything containing PFOAs (also PFAs). I’ve linked an article under Additional Resources for more information on this.

Large Scale Changes

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had access to composting through municipal systems and all take-out packaging was made from real compostable products that also did not contain toxic chemicals? This would take a large scale change to our waste management systems, but it would really change the world and make a global difference in our climate, environment, and health. Just think about how much waste we could keep out of landfills by composting food waste and food containers!

Sustainable fast food packaging idea
Sustainable fast food packaging idea by Ian Gilley of IG Design Solutions, made from biodegradable compressed paper. We need more innovations like this!

ReThink Disposable

ReThink Disposable, a program of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, tries to prevent waste before it starts. They advocate for reusable food container solutions (I’ve listed their guide under Additional Resources). They work with local jurisdictions, businesses, and consumers of take-out food packaging “to inspire a cultural shift away from the single-use “throwaway” lifestyle.” ReThink Disposable indicates that “the best way to champion our movement is by supporting ReThink Disposable businesses who eliminate and reduce disposable packaging.”1 While this program is only in California right now, we can do this and we all have the power to follow the same guidelines and practices. The organization offers multiple case studies on California businesses, including an entire school district, that switched from disposables to reusables.

Disposable cup infographic poster from ReThink Disposable

Solution

While there are many alternatives to polystyrene, none of them will have as significant an impact as simply not using single-use disposable products. Giving up these products doesn’t mean we have to be inconvenienced, it just means we have to prepare a bit more. Stopping the flow of single-use disposables just takes a little forward-thinking and intentionality, because the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. Check out my page on “11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food” for ideas! Once you stop using disposables, you’ll be surprised at how little you miss them.

As a society, we’re going to have to think outside of the box on this one. What about take-out places that allow people to bring their own glass or metal containers and drink cups? What about having a standardized exchange system? Restaurants could invest in reusable containers that customers could return for a small deposit, similar to a container deposit system. Once returned they either receive money back, credit, or their next container at no cost.

In my next and final part of this short series, I’ll explore the role of companies and municipal bans on polystyrene. 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!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Compostable plastics: are they PLAying you?” Aubrey Hills, Student Environmental Resource Center, University of California, Berkeley, March 10, 2017.

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, thecounter.org, August 5, 2019.

Guide, “Reusable Food Serviceware Guide,” ReThink Disposable and Clean Water Fund, 2015.

Footnote:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 2

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

In Part 1 of this short 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

Soup in Styrofoam bowl
Image by Douglas Perkins from Pixabay

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 

“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.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 1

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 was 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

Soup in Styrofoam bowl
Image by Douglas Perkins 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.

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

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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 from JSTOR Daily, with the history of polystyrene and Styrofoam, “Is the 30-Year-Long Styrofoam War Nearing Its End?”

Footnotes:

The Truth about Recycling Batteries

Lego Stormtrooper surrounded by Duracell batteries. Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Recently, I sent my husband to the Hazardous Waste facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to drop off used alkaline batteries (aka single-use or dry cell or primary cell) that we’ve been saving for about 8 months. Hazardous waste would not accept them, informing him that “they were fine to put in the regular trash.” I’ve been taking them there since 2016, perhaps twice per year, and they always accepted them. Did they used to accept them, and now they don’t? Did they never accept them, and just put them in the landfill instead of properly informing me? I don’t know the answer but either way, I was shocked and disappointed.

I believed alkaline batteries were recyclable for many years. Years before I traveled to the Hazardous Waste facility, I used to bring them to Batteries Plus (now Batteries+Bulbs) for recycling. But in the last decade, they stopped taking them. The store clerks told me several times that the recommendation has been to place them in the trash because they are “safe” for landfills. I’ve even been told that alkaline batteries are “good” for landfills because the alkalinity balances out the acidic environment of landfills.

Is any of this true?

No, it isn’t. Those are myths.

According to an article on Consumer Reports: “If your old batteries end up in a landfill, pollutants like these can leak out into the environment and contaminate groundwater, damage fragile ecosystems, and even make their way into the food chain.”

The argument is that mercury, a highly toxic metal, is no longer a threat. Mercury content in batteries has decreased significantly since passage of the 1996 Battery Act, which also changed their classification from hazardous waste to non-toxic or non-hazardous. Some argue that naturally occurring metals in batteries pose no threat to the environment.

But why take the chance while the experts argue it out? Any single-use disposable item is now a threat anyway because of the sheer volume of items we throw away.

Graphic of a dead, leaking battery. Image by acunha1973 on Pixabay
Image by acunha1973 on Pixabay

So can alkaline batteries be recycled?

Technically, yes. But practically, no.

While the recycling of alkaline batteries does exist, they are more expensive to process and they don’t contain valuable materials like other types of batteries do. Thus there is no financial incentive to recycle them unless mandated by law.

Are there laws about battery disposal/recycling?

In some places, yes. More than twenty states have laws about battery disposal. But most are concerned with rechargeable type batteries, which are much more recyclable. In Tennessee, there are no battery recycling requirements. California has the most strict laws – not surprising since California is always in the lead when it comes to laws regarding unsafe, toxic, and dangerous products.

A few states, according to Consumer Reports, require some retailers to collect batteries for recycling. Others require that battery manufacturers fund or organize battery collection programs. Making the manufacturers responsible is one solution. This model is called Extended Producer Responsibility.

Variety of used batteries. Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

What do the manufacturers recommend?

I checked with three large battery manufacturers for their recommendations on alkaline battery disposal. Overall, I was displeased.

Duracell: “Our alkaline batteries are composed primarily of common metals—steel, zinc, and manganese—and do not pose a health or environmental risk during normal use or disposal…Therefore, alkaline batteries can be safely disposed of with normal household waste, everywhere but California.” They encourage customers to contact the local government for disposal options in their area.

Vermont passed a law that implements Extended Producer Responsibility: “A 2016 law now requires primary battery producers, such as Duracell, to fund a free statewide collection and recycling program.” Yay for Vermont!

Energizer contends that “unless you live in California, you’ve been tossing non-rechargeable batteries safely in the trash for at least 19 years.” Um, if it’s not safe in California, it’s not safe anywhere. Toxins don’t change by crossing a border.

Energizer shucks responsibility on the website. They also take credit for an effort to which they did not contribute. “Since its inception in 1994, Call2Recycle has recycled over 100 million pounds of used rechargeable batteries. This national mindset to recycle has enabled Energizer® to pioneer technology that reuses battery material to create new batteries. So already we’re helping to make a difference.” No, they’re not. If these statements were true, they’d take responsibility for the afterlife of disposable batteries.

Rayovac: “Batteries can be disposed of with normal household waste in most US states.” They, too, refer consumers to Call2Recycle. They offer information on their commitment to sustainable production, which is neat even though they offer no real solutions for disposable alkaline batteries.

Photo of AA Energizer brand batteries
Image by Photoshot from Pixabay

Where can you recycle batteries?

Earth911 and Call2Recycle are both good resources for recycling in general. The latter, a leading battery stewardship program, has collection sites for batteries in different parts of the nation. There are no collection points in Tennessee, nor Georgia or Alabama. But maybe they’re near you! Check out this map from Care2Recycle.org:

Map of battery recycling laws by state.
Image courtesy of Care2Recycle.org

There are a few places you can pay to recycle alkaline batteries, but it’s very costly for us as consumers:

        • TerraCycle offers alkaline battery recycling pouches starting at $57.
        • Call2Recycle sells a box for $45 for battery recycling and other items.
        • BigGreenBox also sells one for $63.

Solutions

There are several solutions at the consumer level that we can implement.

    • Stop buying alkaline or single-use disposable batteries, and switch to rechargeable batteries. They are reusable and much more recyclable! This is what I am planning to do effective immediately. I read reviews on rechargeable batteries and decided to order a Panasonic Eneloop rechargeable batteries set. I’ll update this post with a review of them once I’ve received and tested them.

      Image of Panasonic eneloop Power Pack
      Panasonic Eneloop Power Pack
    • Reduce your overall dependence on batteries. I know this is not always feasible, especially with children’s toys and remote controls, but opt for plugging in whenever possible. You can also buy smarter in the future, purchasing items that don’t require alkaline batteries.
    • Recycle the ones you can through one of the above-mentioned services, until you can fully make the switch away from alkaline batteries. I will be doing this well, and I’ll update this post to let you know how it went!
    • Write to the battery manufacturers and request that they do more to improve recycling and awareness about disposal. This probably won’t do much, but it’s worth a try!
Close up photo of batteries, Photo by Hilary Halliwell from Pexels
Photo by Hilary Halliwell from Pexels

I hope this was helpful, and thank you for reading! Leave me a comment or question below, I love a dialog! Keep trying to be the change, and please subscribe!

 

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