Although many people have heard Styrofoam does detrimental things to the planet, very few people actually understand how Styrofoam harms the environment. Learning about the impact Styrofoam has on the planet will help you find ways to help minimize the damage caused by this material.
Problems with Styrofoam
Styrofoam has become such an accepted everyday product that people often don't stop to realize that it is made from polystyrene. Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic. In fact, Styrofoam is the trade name for polystyrene. It gained popularity because it is lightweight, offers good insulation properties that keep products cold or hot, and keeps things safe during the shipping process without adding weight. While there are some positive aspects of the material, the years have shown that Styrofoam also has harmful effects.
Environmental Health Concerns
Environmental health concerns start with the elements used to make Styrofoam. Styrene, for example, is the foundational ingredient used to make polystyrene. It is broadly used in the manufacture of plastics, resins, and rubber.
The EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have established styrene as a possible human carcinogen. For those who are exposed regularly in the manufacture of products made with styrene, some of the acute health effects experienced include:
- Irritation of the skin
- Irritation of the eyes
- Irritation of the upper respiratory tract
- Gastrointestinal effects
Chronic exposure to styrene leads to further complications, including affects on the nervous system. Symptoms of chronic exposure include:
- Minor effects on kidney function
Styrofoam appears to last forever, as it is resistant to photolysis, or the breaking down of materials by photons originating from a light source. This, combined with the fact that Styrofoam is lightweight and therefore floats, means that over time a great deal of polystyrene has accumulated along coasts and waterways around the world. It is now considered the main component of marine debris.
While it can be recycled, the recycling market is diminishing. In many communities people are told that their recycling companies will not accept polystyrene products. Those that are recycled are remanufactured into things like cafeteria trays or packing filler.
Along with the health risks associated with the manufacture of products that use polystyrene, The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research noted 57 chemical by-products released during the creation of Styrofoam. This not only pollutes the air, but also produces loads of liquid and solid waste that need disposal. The brominated flame retardants that are used on Styrofoam are also causing concern, and some research suggests that these chemicals might have negative environmental and health effects.
Styrofoam is manufactured by using HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons, which have negative impacts on the ozone layer and global warming. HFCs are less detrimental to the ozone than CFCs, which they replaced in the manufacturing of Styrofoam, but it is thought that the impact of HFCs on global warming is much more serious.
Another reason that Styrofoam is harmful for the environment is that it is made with petroleum, which is a non-sustainable resource. Additionally, petroleum production creates heavy pollution.
When Styrofoam containers are used for food, chemicals can leach into the food, affecting human health and the reproductive systems. This is accentuated if people reheat the food while still in the container.
Alternatives to Styrofoam
Coming up with a suitable replacement for Styrofoam has been quite a challenge for scientists, although there is hope. Recently, a company called Ecovative Design has created a line of products product made from fungi that are Styrofoam-like and aspire to be a more environmentally friendly replacement.
If you want to make eco-friendly choices to eliminate the use of Styrofoam, look for products that include features such as:
- Manufactured from renewable resources
- Contain biodegradable materials
- Are easily recycled
Reduce and Reuse
The best thing for environmentally conscious consumers who know how Styrofoam is bad for the environment to do is to reduce their use of Styrofoam. They should also encourage and support movements that do the same.