Why Banning Styrofoam Will Improve the Environment

Imagine I’m walking on the beach. I’m feeling the sand between my toes, gazing at the beautiful sunset on the horizon and thinking about how good that ocean water will feel on my skin. Then, the moment ends rudely.

Styrofoam lunchbox washes up on a beach in Mexico. Image credits: Wonderlane.

What is ruining this idyllic scene? A Styrofoam cup? A piece of a Styrofoam container? A cluster of tiny white balls that I’ve mistaken for something natural? No, it’s just Styrofoam. (Styrofoam is a brand name for polystyrene or expanded polystyrene foam.)

Whether Styrofoam ends up on our beaches as litter left by careless beachgoers or as litter washed ashore by ocean currents, Styrofoam is here to stay unless we ban its use worldwide.

Styrofoam’s Durability Is Bad for the Environment and for Humans

Although the ecological and human health risks of Styrofoam are yet to be quantified, there are many reasons to ban Styrofoam from our lives forever. The best reason is this substance lasts forever. Styrofoam never completely degrades; it just continues to cycle through our environment ruining our ecosystems and our health.

The Better Caribbean Program, based in Barbados, works to influence global and local businesses in the Caribbean to avoid the use of Styrofoam.

Styrofoam mountain in Tokyo. Image credits: David Gilford.

Why Styrofoam is bad for the environment

This list of reasons adapted from Clean Water Action, a California environmental groups, emphasizes the relevance of eliminating Styrofoam from our lives:

  • There are alternatives to Styrofoam. For example, we could use reusable containers made of recyclable/recycled plastic or glass. Other options include biodegradable or compostable materials and containers, eco-friendly packaging, and wrap made from sugarcane, corn, and other plant-based materials.
  • Long-term exposure to styrene can cause headaches, depression, fatigue, physical weakness and hearing loss.
  • Styrene can increase levels of fatigue and decrease the ability to concentrate.
  • Styrene disrupts normal hormone functions, resulting in thyroid problems and other hormone- related problems.
  • Styrofoam takes 500 years to break down under optimal conditions. But most Styrofoam we use never breaks down.
  • As Styrofoam breaks into smaller pieces, it becomes more difficult to clean up. Styrofoam pieces block our drains. Styrofoam particles embed themselves in our soil or float out to sea. This is costly for island and coastal economies that depend heavily on tourism and agriculture.
  • Expanded polystyrene foam is 98% air. This means that when Styrofoam is left in our environment, it fills with rainwater and creates mosquito breeding grounds.
  • Styrofoam takes up valuable space in our landfills. Eventually, we will run out of landfill space if we continue to use Styrofoam. In Trinidad, 32.95 tons of expanded polystyrene are thrown away daily.
  • When Styrofoam ends up in our streams, rivers and oceans, marine organisms eat it. Marine organisms suffer because Styrofoam causes choking, starvation and a buildup of toxic chemicals in their tissues. In addition to killing turtles, fish and seabirds, the toxic chemical buildup in these organisms over time ends up in our food supply.
  • When marine organisms try to digest Styrofoam, they cannot perform their normal activities helping the ecosystem. As a result, the marine ecosystem suffers disruption.
  • With the stress of climate change and pollution, our oceans and coastlines cannot afford the extra stress from Styrofoam without compromising the ecosystem services that our bodies of water provide for us daily. That includes food, filtration, climate regulation, healthy coral reefs and storm protection.

Green economy products already exist, ranging from sugarcane bagasse, recycled pet bottles, burlap/crocus/jute, cotton/linen canvas and hemp.  So why is there still a perception that Styrofoam is cheaper than biodegradable options? If we just look at upfront costs, biodegradable options are $0.10 to $0.40 more.

Can incentives for biodegradable options really deal with the issue? Yes, but not unless there is a phase-in plan to introduce biodegradable options at the local level. India, some U.S. states, Guyana, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Barbados are taking steps to ban Styrofoam or plastics. In time, perhaps other countries will see the ecological, financial and health benefits of removing Styrofoam from their environments.

This is an article by Dr. Ariana Marshall Faculty Member, School of STEM at American Public University and Caribbean Sustainability Collective Director. 

3 thoughts on “Why Banning Styrofoam Will Improve the Environment

  1. Nancy Mayes

    Dr. Ariana Marshall, author of the article posted here, makes numerous inaccurate statements about various health concerns related to styrene. The issues she describes are relevant only to a discussion about exponentially high levels of workplace exposure – not for the general public – of which there are regulations and safeguards in place to protect against.

    Styrene – a chemical used in the manufacture of polystyrene products – is NOT harmful in the small amounts to which consumers may be exposed. Comprehensive risk assessments that look at both the full scope of potential hazard data and the potential exposure data have concluded styrene is not a health concern for the general public or consumers.

    Styrene has not been classified as a “known” carcinogen by any federal regulatory agency. Furthermore, there is no conclusive evidence indicating that styrene is a human carcinogen. The evolving science is pointing away from a cancer concern for styrene.

    The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with scientific review and approval of food contact applications, has determined for more than 50 years that polystyrene is safe for use in foodservice products. Consumers are not exposed to levels of styrene via any environmental pathway that represent a health concern. This includes the minute amounts that may be found in food from polystyrene containers.

    Because styrene occurs naturally, and is a commercially important raw manufacturing material, nearly everyone encounters styrene in some form every day, though generally in extremely small amounts. Less than 10 percent of a person’s daily intake of styrene comes from the total exposure to polystyrene food packaging. Unless people stop eating, they cannot avoid styrene altogether since it occurs naturally in many foods – including coffee, beef, cinnamon, and strawberries. In fact, there is more styrene naturally occurring in coffee than will be extracted from a foam cup used to drink it in. If you follow the suggestion to ban people from using foam cups to avoid styrene exposure, there should be a ban to stop drinking coffee as well.

    Although prevalent in urban legends, there is no evidence that heating food in polystyrene containers causes a significant increase in leaching of any residual styrene into the food.

    We invite Dr. Marshall and your readers to learn more about the current research and the safety of styrene at styrene.org and youknowstyrene.org.

    NOTE: STYROFOAM™ is a registered trademark of The Dow Chemical Company that represents its branded building material products, including rigid foam and structural insulated sheathing, and more. The brand name often is misused as a generic term for polystyrene foam foodservice products.

  2. Sandra Moore

    Styrofoam™ is not just a brand. It is a trademarked brand that belongs to Dow Chemical. If you are going to publish an article, then you should observe the trademark. It was interesting to me that your article featured a photo, "Styrofoam™ mountain in Tokyo," taken by David Gilford. What you did not include is that in Japan, over 90% of the Expanded Polystyrene used is recycled. There are a number of other inconsistencies and outright incorrect information in your article (so many that I cannot address them all here). You cited one source for your section titled “Why Styrofoam™ is bad for the environment,” although you did accurately say that the information was “a list of reasons,” which does not mean that the reasons are scientific or proven. You should do a little more research, and at least provide real evidence to back your article.

  3. Pingback: Scientists develop plant-based, environmentally-friendly alternative to Styrofoam –

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