What You Should Know About Styrofoam

polystyrene foam

We’ve all been exposed to Styrofoam at some point in our lives. The expanded polystyrene foam is used in the manufacture of everything from shipping materials and food containers to coffee cups.

Styrofoam is the trade name for this type of material that is solely produced by the Dow Chemical Company. Back in 1941, a team of researchers from the company rediscovered a way to make foamed polystyrene, that was first invented by the Swede Carl Georg Munters. Dow then acquired the exclusive rights to make use of Munters’ patents, and began to manufacture huge amounts of what the company called ‘Styrofoam.’

Nowadays, most of us refer to generic polystyrene foam as Styrofoam. Although these foams have many uses, such as for insulation and buoyancy, they also have many well-documented negative effects on both human health, and the environment.

Why is Generic Polystyrene Foam So Bad?

Although it is a very handy and useful material in theory, generic polystyrene foam comes with many issues that make it a concern for us all:

  • There is a big environmental health concern associated with Styrene, the building block of polystyrene. Used extensively in the making of resins, rubber, and plastics, around 90,000 workers annually are potentially exposed to the substance.

People who make showers, boats, and tubs are included in this number, and many have found that they suffer from adverse health effects as a result of said exposure. Gastrointestinal effects and irritation of the upper respiratory tract, as well as general irritation of the eyes, and skin have been reported.

The chemicals, Styrene and Benzene, used to make Styrofoam, have also been linked to leukemia and Parkinson’s disease.

Chronic exposure can affect the central nervous system, showing as minor effects on the blood and kidneys, and could be a contributing factor in developing headaches, depression, weakness, and fatigue.

In addition to this, Styrene is classified both by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible (IARC), and the EPA, as a possible human carcinogen. For these reasons, a voluntary compliance program is in place for industries where Styrene is used.

Although back in 1992, the US Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration were unsuccessful in their attempt to limit worker exposure to the substance, the Styrene Research Center (SIRC) is still encouraging their member companies to limit their workers’ exposure to 50 parts per million. The following are some facts about the negative effects of Styrofoam:

  • An EPA report from 1986 named the process of manufacturing polystyrene as the 5th biggest creator of hazardous waste.
  • According to the National Bureau of Standard Center for Fire Research, there are 57 chemical byproducts released during polystyrene foam combustion. It’s no wonder then that the process of creating polystyrene is highly polluting to the environment.
  • For the consumer, generic polystyrene foam isn’t safe either. This is because toxic chemicals tend to leach out of Styrofoam products into the foods contained inside them. This is especially true for hot foods, or those heated in Styrofoam in a microwave. The chemicals that are produced are both a threat to human reproductive systems, and to human health.
  • In addition to this, these products are manufactured by using petroleum, which is a heavily polluting and unsustainable resource.
  • Polystyrene foam manufacture relies on the use of hydrocarbons that have a negative effect on ozone air quality, and are seriously polluting to the environment.
  • Polystyrene foam is often dumped into the environment, and has been known to be eaten by wild animals, blocking and clogging their digestive systems. It is also a big problem in landfills.
  • Polystyrene takes more than 500 years to decompose.
  • Styrofoam is known to be the biggest pollutant of United States bays, oceans, and water sources.
  • Because of all these negative effects, many cities and countries the world over have banned the use of polystyrene foam. For example, Orange county CA, Portland OR, and Taiwan.

What are the Alternatives?

Although Styrofoam is incredibly useful, it can be harmful in terms of human health and the environment. Thankfully, there are some alternatives that can be used in similar ways to the substance:

  • Bamboo, corn plastics, and post-consumer recycled paper are renewable resources.
  • Each of these substances is compostable, as well as biodegradable.
  • For every ton of 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled paper you buy, you will be helping to save twelve trees, two months-worth of the electricity required to run the average home in the US, over 1,000 pounds of solid waste, 390 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, nearly 2,000 pounds of greenhouse gases, and over 1,000 gallons of water.

How Can You Avoid Styrofoam?

Now you know of the dangers of Styrofoam, how can you avoid it?

  1. Steer clear of meat packaged on trays made from Styrofoam. When you buy meat from the store, it’s often packaged on Styrofoam trays. However, there is plenty of meat that now comes packaged in plastic. Also, you can ask your butcher to skip the tray, and to use a plastic bag to put your food inside.
  2. Take your own packaging to restaurants to take home your leftovers. Either take home your leftover food in your own container, or just forget about taking the food back home, as often, you probably never end up eating it.
  3. Carry around your own reusable cup for hot drinks. Styrofoam and heat are a bad mix. Think ahead, and bring your own safe and reusable container when you’re out and about.
  4. Stop buying products made with polystyrene. A favorite at kids’ parties, disposable polystyrene dishware should now be a no no. Try using eco-friendly, reusable dishware instead.
  5. Keep Styrofoam packaging outside your home. If you purchase a new TV, or appliance, it’s likely packaged with Styrofoam. With this in mind, you should try to unpack your goods outside, or in your garage, and as far away from animals and children as possible.

In time, it is hoped that more cities in the U.S. will follow San Francisco’s lead, as they were the first city to ban Styrofoam. Through making some small changes to the way you live your life, you can extend that ban to your own home and family life. Don’t take the risk, and choose eco-friendly alternatives instead.



Styrene and Styrofoam 101

San Francisco Bans Packing Peanuts, Coffee Cups and Other Foam Products

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