Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic made from the styrene monomer. Most people know it under the name Styrofoam, which is actually the trade name of a polystyrene foam product used for housing insulation. Polystyrene is a light-weight material, about 95% air, with very good insulation properties and is used in all types of products from cups that keep your beverages hot or cold to packaging material that keep your computers safe during shipping.
Why not use it?
The biggest environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger associated with Styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene. Styrene is used extensively in the manufacture of plastics, rubber, and resins. About 90,000 workers, including those who make boats, tubs and showers, are potentially exposed to styrene. Acute health effects are generally irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system showing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, and weakness, and can cause minor effects on kidney function and blood. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). A voluntary compliance program has been adopted by industries using styrene. The US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration unsuccessfully (a federal court overturned the ruling in 1992) tried to limit the amount of worker exposure to styrene to 50 parts per million (ppm). According to the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC), they still encourage their member companies to comply with the 50 ppm exposure limit. This program would reduce styrene exposures to a 50 ppm TWA with a 100 ppm (15 minute) ceiling.
-OSHA (US Dept of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration)
A 1986 EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste.· The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.
Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems.
These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.
The use of hydrocarbons in polystyrene foam manufacture releases the hydrocarbons into the air at ground level; there, combined with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight, they form tropospheric ozone -- a serious air pollutant at ground level. According to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) more than 100 million Americans currently live in areas that fail to meet air quality standards for ozone. California, the Texas Gulf Coast, the Chicago-Milwaukee area, and the Northeastern U.S. all have "serious ozone air quality problems," according to EPA. Ozone is definitely a dangerous pollutant. The EPA says: "Healthy individuals who are exercising while ozone levels are at or only slightly above the standard can experience reduced functioning of the lungs, leading to chest pain, coughing, wheezing, and pulmonary congestion. In animal studies, long-term exposure to high levels of ozone has produced permanent structural damage to animal lungs while both short and long term exposure has been found to decrease the animal's capability to fight infection." In other words, prolonged exposure to atmospheric ozone above legal limits might be expected to damage the immune system.
By volume, the amount of space used up in landfills by all plastics is between 25 and 30 percent. -"Polystyrene Fact Sheet," Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, California.
Polystyrene foam is often dumped into the environment as litter. This material is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems.
Many cities and counties have outlawed polystyrene foam (i.e. Taiwan, Portland, OR, and Orange County, CA).
Can polystyrene be recycled?
While the technology for recycling polystyrene is available, the market for recycling is very small and shrinking. Many Americans are hearing from their curbside recycling agencies that they will not accept PS goods. The good news is that the current Biopolymer revolution (biodegradable polymers) is charting a path for producing environmentally friendly packaging material to replace those peanuts. Corn based and other seeds known collectively as soapstock waste lead the way. Some are already available as replacements. Perhaps the problematic recycling situation will be solved by replacing the product.
Polystyrene recycling is not "closed loop" - collected polystyrene cups are not remanufactured into cups, but into other products, such as packing filler and cafeteria trays. This means that more resources will have to be used, and more pollution created, to produce more polystyrene cups.
-"Plastics Industry Grasps for Straws," Everyone's Backyard, January/February 1990, Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste
Does polystyrene deplete the ozone layer?
Initially a portion of polystyrene production was aided by the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals that break down ozone in the troposphere. When this issue came to light, polystyrene manufacturers negotiated a gradual phase-out of CFCs in the production process and no CFCs have been used since the late 1980's.
Though polystyrene manufacturers claim that their products are "ozone-friendly" or free of CFCs, this is only partially true. Some polystyrene is now manufactured with HCFC-22, which, though less destructive than its chemical cousins, CFC-11 and CFC-12, is still a greenhouse gas and harmful to the ozone layer. In fact, according to a 1992 study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, HCFCs are three to five times more destructive to the ozone layer than previously believed.
-"Study Finds CFC Alternatives More Damaging Than Believed," The Washington Post, December 10, 1989.
We Need Alternatives?
Post-consumer recycled paper, bamboo, corn plastics, etc. are easily renewable resources.
All of these products biodegrade when composted.
Paper products can be recycled at most people's doorstep where community recycling is in place.
In 1995, 40% of all US paper was recycled, including 32.6 million tons of paper & paperboard. (EPA)
Every ton of 100% Post-consumer waste recycled paper products you buy saves:
1,087 pounds of solid waste
1,560 kilowatts of energy (2 months of electric power required by the average US home)
1,196 gallons of water
1,976 lbs. of greenhouse gases (1,600 miles traveled in the average US car)
3 cubic yards of landfill space
9 pounds of HAPs, VOCs, and AOXs combined
390 gallons of oil