Green Matters | Pass on Styrofoam

January 24, 2012

Use of Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene foam) is pretty widespread.  It is used extensively in packaging, building installation, disposable cups, containers, toys, electrical devices, automobile body parts, etc ...  It is one of those materials that is difficult to avoid but should be avoided.  Polystyrene which is identified as resin number 6, is made from the styrene monomer which is linked to a host of health issues - skin, eye, respiratory irritation, depression, fatigue, and central nervous system damage to name just a few.  Just last year, it was added to the list of potential carcinogens by the US Department of Health (updated: 2014 Report on Carcinogens). Benzene, another known carcinogen is also a component of polystyrene foam. 

Besides the health concerns, there are also environmental reasons to avoid polystyrene. Styrene is not a biodegradable material nor is it easily recyclable.  So when you toss that styrofoam cup or container into the trash it eventually finds its home in a landfill where it will remain for about 500 years before breaking down. However, Styrofoam is more likely to end up as litter given it's lightweight nature (how often do you see styrofoam being easily blown by the wind from place to place even though it had been disposed of properly).  And as litter, it makes its way into our parks and waterways where it becomes a choking hazard to the wildlife.

Given the negative impact to both our health and our environment, you would think that this material would have long been eliminated.  However, this material is so cheap and convenient, it is entrenched in our society and near impossible to eliminate completely.

The best alternative is to phase it out gradually and focusing on areas where we can make an impact - namely takeout containers, plates, and cups.   

You can avoid Styrofoam by carrying reusable mugs and containers with you when you eat out.  You can also encourage the restaurants you frequent to switch to safer and more sustainable alternatives or your can petition your city to ban the use of polystyrene containers for food.   Many cities, including San Francisco and Burlingame (where ZoLi office is located), have already banned the use of polystyrene foam for food containers.  In fact, California is trying to get a statewide ban (SB 568) - prohibiting restaurants, grocery stores, and other vendors dispensing food in expanded polystyrene containers beginning in 2014.  You can help reduce Styrofoam litter by writing your local Assembly Member and urge them to support the bill at the next vote.  Click here to take action.  More information about this issue and bill can be found from Clean Water Action.

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