Why Is Styrofoam Still a Thing?
Photo adapted from theilr/Flickr

Why Is Styrofoam Still a Thing?

Expanded polystyrene is truly a wonder material.
March 11, 2016, 11:00am

It might not have the sexiest name, but expanded polystyrene is truly a wonder material. Widely—and incorrectly—known by by the trademarked name Styrofoam™, this lightweight substance is crafted from petroleum-based polystyrene beads, which are stretched out during an intricate steaming and moulding process. The resulting product is 98 percent air, extraordinarily cheap to manufacture, and has widespread applications ranging from life rafts to fast food containers.

Unfortunately, the very qualities that make expanded polystyrene (EPS) such an ubiquitous, cost-effective material are also the reasons it has become an all-out environmental nightmare. So, to quote the title of this illustrious column, why is expanded polystyrene foam still a thing?

Before tackling that specific question, let's first quantify the sobering scale and reach of foam pollution. It's estimated that major urban centers, such as New York City, discard some 20,000 tons of discarded EPS products into local waste streams per year, while Americans as a whole trash a whopping 25 billion foam cups annually. On a global scale, polystyrene is being churned out in the amount of 14 million metric tonnes each year—or 31 trillion pounds—making EPS foam one of the most pervasive forms of trash pollution on Earth.

"Foam is a particularly insidious type of trash pollution," Kate Judson, an environmental protection specialist for the Department of Energy & Environment in Washington DC, told me via email.

"It is lightweight and breaks up easily," Judson said. "Wind or rain transports foam to storm drains and water bodies, where it breaks into small pieces that are nearly impossible to remove. When foam and other types of plastic enter the environment, it slowly degrades into microscopic particles known as microplastics. These microplastics often absorb contaminants such as oil and grease, which may contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and other toxins."

This leads to hazardous accumulation of non-biodegradable plastics in both land and marine environments, where they will stick around for many centuries. Microorganisms such as plankton consume the stripped down remnants of the foam and, in turn, allow them to infiltrate food webs in ever-increasing concentrations.

"Given that fish eat plankton and humans eat fish, scientists are now realizing that humans may very well be eating their own plastic pollution and the contaminants that come with it," Judson said.

That's right: your takeout order might be seasoned with the same material as the box it's served in. Bon appetite.

A squirrel noshes on an EPS foam cup. Image: marc from toronto/Wikimedia Commons

In response to these negative environmental and health impacts, over 100 cities around the world have moved to prohibit EPS foam in their communities. For instance, Judson and her colleagues recently succeeded in passing a foam ban in DC, which took effect on January 1 of this year. According to her team, 75 percent of inspected businesses were in compliance with it as of February 25, which should translate into a significant reduction of EPS pollution over the coming years.

"All three jurisdictions in the Anacostia River watershed ... have foam bans taking effect in 2016, so we expect to see a nearly 100 percent decline in foam pollution in the river," she told me. "This builds on the success of the District's disposable bag fee, which has resulted in a 72 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags found in the river since it took effect in 2010."

In short, outlawing EPS foam seems like an unequivocal slam dunk for public health, environmental sustainability, and waste management, and there's now plenty of precedent for how to achieve it. So what is the holdup for communities that have yet to successfully prohibit the material?

To answer that question, consider the example of New York City, which enacted a ban on single-use EPS foam that took effect on July 1, 2015.

"These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in support of the legislation. "We have better options, better alternatives, and if more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less."

But only a few months later, on September 22, the ban was overturned by Manhattan Supreme Court judge Margaret Chan, who ruled that the city government had not done its due diligence in investigating potential EPS recycling options.

This argument had originally been put forth in a lawsuit against the de Blasio administration spearheaded by the EPS foam manufacturer Dart Container Corporation and the Restaurant Action Alliance NYC, a pro-foam coalition formed in 2013.

"We put together a plan that even the City's recycler supported that would have removed all polystyrene foam, and not just foodservice articles, from the City's waste stream," said Michael Westerfield, Dart's director of recycling, in a statement dated April 30. "Our plan represented sound environmental policy, but they opted for a politically-expedient ban."

"What we didn't know is that City Hall had a hidden agenda that would not be swayed by facts or common sense. We are taking a stand today to protect the thousands of businesses that will suffer if this ban is allowed to stand, as well as manufacturers and recyclers who oppose this ban."

This lawsuit exemplifies one of the core reasons that EPS remains so pervasive in communities around the world. There are economic consequences to foam bans that affect EPS manufacturers like Dart, as well as restaurant owners who have to pony up for more expensive recyclable containers. Indeed, when Judson and her colleagues conducted community outreach on this issue in the Washington DC area, they encountered some similar qualms from the food service industry.

Bird on foam waste outside of Hong Kong. Image: See-ming Lee

"Some businesses owners had questions about the increased cost of recyclable food containers," she said. "We encourage businesses and organizations to consider paper or rigid plastic containers, both of which are widely available and inexpensive. One business owner reported that recyclable cups cost about one cent more than foam cups. Customers are unlikely to notice such a small difference, especially when a container is holding a $15 meal."

Nevertheless, even small price hikes will inspire detractors, especially business owners who think foam recycling is a more equitable option for all parties involved.

To that point, despite the Manhattan Supreme Court's ruling, there is widespread skepticism that city-wide EPS recycling efforts are feasible. "[L]obbyists have asserted that foam products can be recycled, though there's a large gap between what's technically possible and what's economically viable to recycle on a large scale," Judson said.

"Industry providers in the greater Washington area have repeatedly expressed that it is not economically viable to recycle foam and that they have no plans to do so in the future," she added. "Given currently-low oil prices, industry providers are even having difficulty earning profits on materials that are typically considered recyclable."

For the time being, this fight will continue to be hashed out in New York City, no doubt provoking further debates in other cities interested in outlawing EPS foam for good.

But whether you think that recycling is a workable alternative or a quixotic non-starter, one thing is inarguable: EPS contaminants are dangerous, widespread, and destined to influence ecosystems for hundreds of years.

The only way to curb the damage is to pass tougher legislation that will ebb the noxious flow of the material into delicate natural habitats around the world. While it's encouraging that so many cities have confronted the issue head on, it could take years or even decades before EPS foam is phased out completely. It all depends on the political will of individual communities, and their level of comfort with EPS products circulating through the environment inherited by their great-great-great-grandchildren, and beyond.

So the next time you opt for a foam to-go container, take a moment to think about where it will actually go.

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.