If you’re anything like the average human inhabitant of the United States, it’s likely that you’ve used styrofoam in your life, whether it be in the form of eating utensils, egg cartons, to-go boxes, or packing peanuts. What you might not know (or maybe you do) is that this “styrofoam”, which is actually called (expanded) polystyrene foam (EPS for short) or foamed polystyrene, a similar product to the true styrofoam used to insulate buildings, isn’t that great for the environment. (Shocking, I know.) Today, we’ll be looking at some of the main concerns regarding EPS and what we can do to reduce our EPS consumption.

Some examples of the usual uses of styrofoam.

One of the largest cons of EPS is that it is not biodegradable, and therefore occupies a lot of space in landfills as it can’t really break down, which doesn’t do any good for the global waste problem. Furthermore, it is quite hard to recycle and because of that, it often is cheaper to make a whole new product than it is to recycle one, thus discouraging companies from recycling EPS. Furthermore, certain health concerns forbid recycled EPS from coming in contact with food, so only new EPS can be used in takeout containers and utensils, which is what styrofoam is commonly used for. Recycled material can be used in other products, however.

When EPS is littered, it is common for it to break down into countless tiny pieces. However, this can be a serious problem for the environment. This is because the tiny pieces are not easy to clean up, causing them to be left behind. They can then be swept away into bodies of water, which can be contaminated from the EPS. Animals can also be harmed if they mistake the EPS for food and ingest it. This can lead to fatal injuries, diseases, and even death, which isn’t fair to the animal who just wanted to eat. Because of their miniscule size and lack of biodegradability, they can also linger in our soil, releasing harmful chemicals which can affect the soil’s fertility.

An important infographic created by the GDA about styrofoam’s decomposition into the ocean.

Another main concern about using EPS is the material it’s made from. Foamed polystyrene is regularly created from synthetic chemicals and nonrenewable resources such as petroleum. These generate large amounts of harmful pollution and are not sustainable, as nonrenewable resources cannot have their supplies replenished once they are fully depleted. Due to the materials’ toxic nature, workers handling the product “have higher instances of cancer, neurological issues, headaches, depression, fatigue, and more”, according to the Greendining Alliance (GDA). In fact, the polystyrene industry “ranks the 5th largest creator of toxic wastes in the USA”, including liquid and solid wastes, the GDA adds.

If handled improperly, large amounts of EPS can leach, or drain, into our food and drink, and if it gets into our water supply, consumption of the water can cause liver, kidney, or circulatory system problems. Don’t worry though, as this will only happen if you’re extremely careless with your EPS usage. However, the University of Illinois does recommend “[avoiding] using foamed polystyrene containers for heating food, especially food high in vitamin A, which can add to the leaching effect.” Such foods include carrots, instant oatmeal, hot liquids, especially tea, and cheese pizza.

So, what are some ways we can cut down on our “styrofoam” usage? There are several ways to do this, some of which include:

  • Bringing your own reusable takeout containers to restaurants or wherever you may need them and using those instead of the typical styrofoam ones
  • Replacing styrofoam cups, plates, and bowls with those made from more eco-friendly materials such as glass or porcelain if you can afford to
  • Finding other eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam packing peanuts like those made from corn starch, coconut husks, and even peat moss, or even better, avoiding packing material entirely by using better-sized boxes if you can

No matter what or how much you decide to do, know that you’re helping the environment regain its health, one step at a time.

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