Does anyone really like sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup? Personally, I don’t! Although these cups have many advantages for restaurant owners—they are cheap, lightweight, and they keep food and beverages hot on the inside but are cool enough to handle on the outside—they have many disadvantages for our society and environment.
If Senate Bill 568 passes, expanded polystyrene foam takeout food packaging (often referred to by the registered trade name Styrofoam) will be banned in the state of California. Why ban a product that seems to have advantages? Let’s review.
• Polystyrene foam doesn’t decompose easily, but it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and remains in the land, rivers, and oceans for hundreds of years.
• It harms birds and animals because they mistake the small particles for food.
• It is very lightweight and blows with the wind causing litter problems for cities and counties. Litter removal requires energy and money, an expense we all pay for.
• Foam containers are rarely recycled because recycling is not cost effective.
• It takes energy to make these disposable containers, thus contributing to emissions of greenhouse gases.
Public health issues
• The manufacturing of expanded polystyrene foam exposes workers to dangerous chemicals (e.g., styrene and toluene). Exposure increases the risks of lung tumors and cancers.
• If food and beverages are heated in these containers, styrene can migrate from the container into the food and would therefore be ingested. This means that we are probably ingesting a human carcinogen.
• When fatty or acidic foods are stored in foam containers, styrene can migrate from the container into the food.
Alternatives to foam packaging in the form of compostable containers already exist. Several Californian jurisdictions (e.g., San Francisco) have implemented bans on the use of polystyrene foam, and many businesses have already moved over to non-foam containers.
It is possibly true that fewer air emissions are produced when transporting the lightweight foam products compared with compostable products. And sure, compostable containers sometimes end up as litter. However, compostable products typically use much less energy to make and dispose of compared to compostable products when one considers the cradle-to-cradle lifecycle. In addition, compostable products are much less polluting to our waterways, and less dangerous to animals since they will eventually decompose and disappear. Personally, I choose to avoid polystyrene whenever possible!