Popular for take out, to-go cups, and temporary cold food storage, styrofoam is a lightweight, cheap, and convenient material ubiquitous to daily life for many. But styrofoam use comes at a cost for the health of human and the environment. You might think that recycling it cancels out the negative impact of making it in the first place. After all, it gets reused then, right? Not so fast! Recycling this eco-unfriendly material isn’t as simple as it sounds. Here’s the case for ditching styrofoam use altogether.
Cost of Recycling Styrofoam
Just recycle it? Not so easy.
Recycling styrofoam is expensive because of its material properties and contamination. Since styrofoam is 98% air, it’s bulky and not cost-effective to store or ship. Styrofoam is also difficult to clean because of its porosity, making the recycling process tricky.
The US alone is producing 3 million tons of styrofoam per year, with an estimated $7 billion dollars in annual recycling costs. For comparison, glass is only $89 per ton to recycle. Recycling styrofoam is certainly not cheap, and nobody wants to foot the bill. Because of the expense, most of it ends up as trash.
When It Doesn’t Get Recycled
Not only does it look like the opposite of nature, but it doesn’t decompose and is a major pollution problem. For the styrofoam that doesn’t get recycled, this toxic material gets dumped in landfills or makes its way to the ocean. It’s estimated that styrofoam alone makes up 30% of total landfill volume, and approximately 20% of styrofoam ends up in waterways.
Most materials biodegrade and decompose with light exposure, or photodegrade. Styrofoam does not biodegrade and is resistant to photodegradation. In fact, some researchers claim it may take a minimum of 500 years for styrofoam to decompose naturally. With UV light exposure from the sun, however, styrofoam does become more brittle, breaking down into small pieces until it becomes powder. The smaller styrofoam breaks down, the easier it is for animals to consume it.
Due to its highly porous nature that makes it such a good insulator, styrofoam absorbs pollutants in the environment like DDT and oil in sea water. Then, these contaminated bits of styrofoam get eaten by sea creatures at the bottom of the food chain like plankton or small fish who subsequently get poisoned and poison their predators when they get eaten for lunch.
Each year, around 2.3 billion kilograms of styrofoam end up in landfills or waterways. Here in the US, we throw away 25 trillion styrofoam cups per year. But the health ramifications don’t start at the product’s end of life. Styrofoam is toxic all the way through.
Health Dangers of Styrofoam Production
Styrofoam is short for polystyrene foam, which requires toxic materials such as benzene and styrene in its production process.
In manufacturing, the most common exposure to styrene is inhalation, although some can be absorbed through the skin if contact is made. Styrene is readily metabolized by the body and eventually excreted. However, as with any other material, the body’s detoxification isn’t perfect and the metabolic process can also have toxic effects.
For example, styrene is metabolized in the body into styrene oxide. Styrene oxide is a genotoxin that bonds to guanine, a DNA base, causing mutation and carcinogenic effects. Styrene oxide can travel by blood, which means it’s capable of causing damage like tumors in places other than where it was formed. Modern medicine has no solution for styrene toxicity beyond treating the symptoms of poisoning and avoiding exposure.
Every year 90,000 workers are exposed to styrene, which as we know causes various health issues, many of which may go unreported or unconnected as is typical for toxicity exposure with a broad collection of symptoms.
Benzene has a similar level of toxicity and is associated with negative neurological effects and increased risk of cancer.
Styrofoam Toxicity For Consumers
Keep in mind that when your food or drink touches styrofoam, a residual amount of these toxic materials like styrene can leach into your meal. The FDA sets limits on the amount of free styrene that is allowed to seep out of the container, but real safety levels when it comes to food are generally much lower than what the FDA defines.
Plus, why would you want exposure to any of these toxins when it could be fully avoided by choosing a different container?
To stick with nature-friendly, reusable materials, choose glass or ceramic instead for food storage. Options for stainless steel or ceramic to-go coffee mugs are endless, as well.