Kansas should realize real cost of Styrofoam and phase out harmful products

July 27, 2021 3:33 am

Most Styrofoam food containers and cups end up in landfills and water bodies, writes Syed Jamal. Public and private sectors can take actions to encourage the use and development of alternatives. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Syed Jamal teachers college-level chemistry, biology and anatomy/physiology and researches phytoremediation and cancer biology.

It’s cheap. It’s convenient. And it’s claimed to be easily recyclable. Yes, I am talking about Styrofoam or styrene. These disposable foam containers are widely used and resist biodegradation, thus increasing the risk of environmental pollution.

Since I wrote a Kansas Reflector commentary on microplastics, I have had conversations with folks about the use of Styrofoam for packaging and food serving, and how to reduce the use of this polluting material.

Styrofoam is a DuPont trademark product and it is usually confused with expanded polystyrene (EPS), which is made when crushed beads of polystyrene are exposed to steam and fill up with the air. Both products are based on styrene, a derivative of the organic compound benzene, and are commercially produced in Kansas.

Polystyrene is a petrochemical that can exist in both solid and foamy forms. The solid form is used to store or carry medical equipment; the foamy form is the EPS. The solid forms are used as food service containers, home and appliance insulators and product packaging. The foamy form is commonly used to protect fragile shipments. It also is increasingly used in building and construction.

The polystyrene manufacturing process releases greenhouse gases and waste products that end up in landfills and waterways. A series of chemical reactions convert benzene into styrene that is next joined end to end to form a long chain polymer called polystyrene.

Two of the chemicals used in this process, benzene and styrene, have been found to adversely impact the human nervous system upon prolonged exposure. And a recent study found an association between occupational exposure to styrene and hearing loss.

About 3 million tons of Styrofoam are manufactured annually in the United States while the global production is 14 million tons. The hidden costs associated with its production are estimated to be around $7 billion, or more than one cent per cup.

Styrofoam’s insulation properties and its unsinkable nature make it highly attractive for single-use food packaging. While inert and unreactive, Styrofoam does easily break into smaller pieces that absorb toxins and that marine animals mistake for food.

Although labeled as recyclable No. 6 plastic, Styrofoam’s light weight and its high volume compared to its weight make it difficult to transport. Also, people tend to throw Styrofoam food containers, plates and cups into the trash and not recyclable bins. The end result is that most of it ends up in landfills and water bodies.

While there are companies that recycle Styrofoam, almost a third of all landfill content is Styrofoam. Actually, according to the EPA, 80% of Styrofoam ends up in landfills and about a fifth of it finds its way into bodies of water. In the United States, we throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups.

I called a manufacturer, ACH Foam Technologies in Kansas City, Kan., and talked to a man who routed my query to the EPS Industry Alliance. I received a response from a woman at the alliance who pointed out that EPS was different from Styrofoam. The industry acknowledges that EPS is not biodegradable by stating that biodegradable EPS packaging is being developed. The main line of defense in favor of using EPS is that EPS is mostly air, it has excellent thermal and shock-absorbing properties, efforts are underway to improve EPS waste collection and new technologies have been developed to convert EPS waste into new polystyrene.

Even if we take the words of the industry prima facie with respect to EPS, the fact remains that the very process used to make styrene hurts the environment.

While I fully empathize with the economic impact an abrupt ban will have on people whose livelihoods are involved, Styrofoam manufacturers can be offered incentives to make the transition from foam to paper.

There are alternatives to Styrofoam. Recently, researchers developed nanocrystals of cellulose and combined it with another polymer to come up with a material that has strength, insulation, and heat stability comparable to Styrofoam. Of course, some companies, like Dunkin Donuts, already have moved to paper cups.

Both the public and the private sectors can take actions to encourage the use and development of alternatives to Styrofoam. State and local governments in Kansas must realize the environmental costs associated with Styrofoam and act. This year, Maine became the first state to ban the use of Styrofoam, and with rising public awareness, other states might follow suit.

Cost-benefit analyses suggest the real costs of using Styrofoam vastly outweigh any benefits. Therefore, we should use alternative products, and try persuading companies, faith communities, Kansas colleges, and city and state governments to slowly phase out the use of Styrofoam.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Styrofoam as a registered trademark of Dow. The company merged with DuPont in 2017, then separated in 2019. In the reorganization, DuPont took over the trademark.

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Syed Jamal
Syed Jamal

Syed Jamal lives with his wife and three children in Lawrence. He experimented with journalism as a teenager in Dhaka, Bangladesh, before coming to the United States, where he received undergraduate degrees in philosophy and biology from Rockhurst University and graduate degrees in pharmacology and molecular/applied biosciences from the University of Missouri. He teaches chemistry, biology and anatomy/physiology at the college level, and is developing phytoremediation methods for the San Jose, California-based Ascend Biotechnology and researching cancer pathology with teaching hospitals in Kansas and Arkansas.