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Climate for Action: Choosing an Alternative to Polystyrene

2009 March 24

About the Author: Michelle Gugger graduated from Rutgers University in 2008. She is currently spending a year of service at EPA’s Region 3 Office in Philadelphia, PA as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

I remember all throughout school, all the plates and cups in the cafeteria were polystyrene.  For the students, if we were buying lunch we had no choice but to use the polystyrene dishware.  Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know the negative impacts on the Earth that we were all creating by using these products, or that because polystyrene is non-biodegradable, the dishware that I threw out after lunch would still be floating around in the environment today and continue to do so years from now.

Polystyrene creates waste that just does not go away.  In what ways then do you think polystyrene will impact our environment?  One of the most important ways, I feel, will be the health of our land and water environments.  I’ve already seen polystyrene dishware floating around in streams and in parks.  This is not only ugly to look at, but it’s also dangerous for the animals if they eat it.  In addition to affecting our land and water environments, polystyrene impacts our environment by releasing pollutants into the air.  In 1986, the EPA identified 57 chemical byproducts that were released into the air through its production and many of the pollutants are known to cause serious health effects such as the reduced functioning of the lungs and nervous systems.  Check out Earth’s Resource’s website to learn about the ways polystyrene can affect our health and environment.

So let’s reduce our impact!  Reduce air pollution and the waste in our environment by taking action.  How can you do this?  Can you think of ways to influence your school to change their polystyrene-only policies?  How?  Every year Americans waste enough polystyrene that it could circle the Earth 426 times.  Let’s protect our health and keep our environment clean by reducing this waste—and choose a different alternative to polystyrene.

Editorial Correction: The first version of this blog posting incorrectly used the term styrofoam® instead of polystyrene foam. Comments to the blog also reflect this misuse of the term. The DOW Chemical Company is the owner of several registrations for the trademark Styrofoam® which is used on Dow’s plastic foam insulation and construction products for use in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings, and on floral and craft products. The term was incorrectly used in the blog as a generic description of foam products. We regret the mistake and any inconvenience this may have caused.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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30 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan Cipriani permalink
    March 25, 2009

    Hi; I am curious about your opinion to this question. What do you think about drinking water from the ocean which has been sanitized etc. with chlorine etc., as opposed to buying bottled spring water? My son has recently begun working on a cruise ship to the Caribbean for the past 2 weeks. Of course, he is not quite used to this. In order to save money he has been drinking the free water from the cruise ship as opposed to the bottled water. He hasn’t been feeling too well and I’m concerned. He is tired all the time, doesn’t sleep well etc. He will embark back to FL on Friday and then go back on the same trip for another 2 weeks. Do you have any useful advice about this? I would greatly appreciate it.
    Thank you, Susan.

  2. Greg Bergtold permalink
    March 25, 2009

    Styrofoam is a registered trademark of The Dow Chemical Company, Inc. that represents a family of rigid foam board insulation products. Your article appears to be talking about plastic foam cups made from expanded bead polystyrene and has incorrectly used the Styrofoam tradename.
    You should be intereted to know that Styrofoam insulation is a long time partner of the EPA’s Energy Star program and can save up to 1 ton of CO2 emissions for every square foot installed over it’s service lifetime.

  3. Bethann permalink
    March 27, 2009

    As much as a styrofoam ban would benefit the environment and as much as I would like to see a greener environment I don’t think that the majority of people will find an alternative to it. Between companies in the food industry like McDonalds who still sell a few items in styrofoam containers to the affordability and easy use of styrofoam plates that schools buy for their students makes me believe that the only way to reduce the use of styrofoam is if every person makes the conscious effort to stop using them. With today’s economy and social situation styrofoam use is not the forefront problem people, particularly in this country, are concerned with. They may even be in favor of using styrofoam plates compared to buying real plates and spending money on water, soap, and towels to wash them. We also live in an on the go world which means easy access and speed of getting food and moving on to one of the other thousand things on our agenda for the day. I wish we lived in an ideal world where more people were concerned with the environment to understand the importance of finding a styrofoam alternative but unfortunately I just don’t see that happening.

  4. Kelly permalink
    March 28, 2009

    We should encourage our friends to pack their lunches in reusable containers and use water jugs for our drinks. I see a lot of people at school throw tons of garbage out and I waste nothing. It feels good that I am able to help the environment by doing this. I wish more people would do this too, we should tell our friends. I do and I think they do listen and I know that they understand why am doing it which feels good too.

  5. Michelle permalink
    March 30, 2009

    You may want to consider having him see a doctor to make sure that his sickness is from drinking the water and not sea sickness, the norovirus or the stress of starting a new job. If you are certain it is from the water, you can purchase a water filter to run the water through or if possible, pack bottled water to take on the trip.

  6. Michelle permalink
    March 30, 2009

    I agree, but we shouldn’t get discouraged. Many organizations are becoming greener because it is economical and makes them look good. Progress is being made – it just takes a lot of work to get there.

  7. Michelle permalink
    March 30, 2009

    Great idea!

  8. Donnie in Astoria NY permalink
    April 1, 2009

    It’s April 1st, could it be snowing? There’s lots of snow like white particles in the air and the ground is covered with “snow” and building up into little piles and covering cars. But it’s not snow. It’s styrofoam from a commercial construction site 10 buildings away. The 4 story commercial building is being insulated with styrofoam and they are sanding it so a coat of stucco will adhere to the surface. Sounds like an environmental and health hazard to me.

  9. Michelle permalink
    April 6, 2009

    This does sound like a hazard. To check or to report this you can call the EPA hotline for air quality @ 1-866-411-4EPA.

  10. Ankita permalink
    April 6, 2009

    I’m a graduate student at the University of Miami in an Environmental Health course. I really enjoyed your post about the use of Styrofoam and the need to reduce its use in order to protect our environment. While reduction of use and production of these environmentally harmful substances is ideal there have been many movements to encourage the recycling and reuse of not only Styrofoam but other plastic products as well. What are your thoughts on cities investing in the recycling of plastics including Styrofoam products?

  11. Michelle permalink
    April 7, 2009

    I think it’s great when cities invest in recycling plastic materials rather than investing in landfills. Most cities don’t recycle more than #1 and #2 materials however because they do not have the infrastructure to do so. It is very costly for a city to put the recycling infrastructure in place and redesign their current infrastructure to recycle more plastics. However I think it will be in the near future that cities will do this. As resources become more valuable, as landfills become fuller and more expensive to dump waste in and as funding monies for green technology and green jobs becomes available for cities – I definitely feel that we will soon see a shift towards more plastics recycling.

  12. Jeremy permalink
    May 1, 2009

    I work for a large company that has many cafeterias that use polystyrene plates, cups, and bowls. This concerns me greatly as across the company there are thousands of people that use these products everyday. I have stopped using these products all together, and have attempted to convince my coworkers around me to do the same, stating some of the facts you mentioned above. However, most are apathetic and continue to use this wasteful substance everyday.

    Any advice on how to make more of an impact to bring polystyrene usage down within my company? Or advice on going about possibly eliminating it all together from the cafeterias?

  13. Jim Tammen permalink
    May 5, 2009

    I wrote a letter to my school about the use of polystyrene products at school. They responded by giving me links to a manufacture’s site about the environmental damage of polystyrene. It made the impact seem negligible and that polystyrene have little impact on the amount of trash in a landfill which makes sense since 99% of the polystyrene is air, but since it was the manufacturer that presented the data i was skeptical of the info. I was wondering what the true damages were, but found it difficult to find a comprehensive summery on the site about environmental damage. I was also curios about the damage the workers that make this product receive.

  14. Michelle permalink
    May 21, 2009

    Please see this website

    It can help you with your research

  15. Michelle permalink
    May 21, 2009

    You may consider posting information about polystrene around the cafeteria. If you have the time to, it would be great to talk to the management who buys the polystrene – offer them alternative products that are safer than polystrene. If the price is right for them -chances are you could change their ways. Good luck to you!

  16. Rolland Lusioli permalink
    June 13, 2009

    Many of environmental challenges can be addressed by young people who are energetic and full of ideas. I am happy for the effort if being put for the students in school to put actions and researches of the same.
    Back at our home country Kenya we youth we trying to strive students and youth out of school to do more actions of environmental conservations through planting trees and water reservations where possible with little resources we have.

  17. Kat permalink
    July 20, 2009

    My husband and I have been avoiding polystyrene uses as much as possible. Unfortunately we feel we don’t have choices when it comes to packing small furniture we ship coast to coast. To minimize damages during the transit we use 1″ thick polystyrene pieces inside 46″ x 21″ x 13″ shipping boxes. Does anyone have any alternatives?

  18. Kevin permalink
    September 3, 2009

    I too saw the problem with the amount of polystyrene continuing to build up in our environment. Together with a few other business partners, we created a 100% recyclable, disposable cellulose cooler to at least replace all the polystyrene “disposable” coolers that are out there. Let me know if you’d like some information about it. We are finally ready to manufacture the Recycooler after 2 years of research and development.

  19. Alan Johnson permalink
    November 24, 2009

    I agree Stryrofoam is Harmful….Im doing a research project at school…if u know where i can get some more info please email me

  20. themoversreview permalink
    November 26, 2009

    Tons of this is utlized in the packing process within the moving industry – unprinted newspaper is the best alternative when you’re moving

  21. Ken Hightower permalink
    November 28, 2009

    One thing we can all do to help with this petro chemical pollution of our planet is to start using BPA free plastic bottles. I send my children to school every morning with their Yoli nutrition drink bottled in a BPA free bottle and is dishwasher safe. We reuse them over and over again. Learn more about these bottles and help save our environment.

  22. Tyler permalink
    February 26, 2010

    My school is trying to think of alternatives for polystyrene that could be in our budget any ideas?

  23. brinson permalink
    September 17, 2010

    how do poly styrene bans affect buisnesses and the enviornment

  24. concerned mom permalink
    November 2, 2010

    Our school is also trying to think of an alternative for polystyrene. Please keep me in the loop!

  25. Tyler Natof permalink
    June 5, 2011

    I am very befuddled: This very blog denounces all of the very negative effects of polystyrene. Since we know how detrimental it is to our environment and to our health; why doesn’t the EPA just impose a federal ban on all polystyrene products? With proper care; I feel that this would be the best solution. It would indubitably eliminate one hundred percent of all such products.

  26. marishka permalink
    September 20, 2011

    i dont understand this stuff.

  27. Nicole permalink
    October 3, 2011

    What else are you going to use? Paper products are heavier and therefore cost more to ship (and therefore create more emissions) and do not keep hot food hot or cold food cold, and they use more greenhouse gases to produce. Washable items require water and energy (and people – $$$) to clean them. Encouraging your municipality to institute polystyrene recycling is the BEST option. There is more demand for recycled plastics than there is supply. Or – research how your school or company can recycle polystyrene on its own. Non-food-contact polystyrene is particularly valuable. Stores in your area (particularly big box stores) may already be recycling polystyrene and could accept your recycling stream.

  28. trit permalink
    May 2, 2013

    it awsome

  29. Foaming Agent Manufacturer in India permalink
    November 16, 2013

    Thanks for sharing the post related to the styrofoam which is like restoration of property and restoration of foaming agent. keep on posting such blog for commercial users.

  30. Sara permalink
    February 5, 2015

    Thank you, Nicole, for your comparison between the environmental impacts of producing/shipping polystyrene verses paper products. Every phase of a product’s lifecycle should be considered when weighing it’s environmental cost. To your statement “Non-food-contact polystyrene is particularly valuable.” I’ve encountered a significant roadblock when is comes to recycling food-grade polystyrene. It seems that the few polystyrene recyclers in existence won’t accept it. I too am finding it difficult to locate credible data regarding the decomposition, (or lack there of depending on the source,) of polystyrene compared with alternative material. I tried the link provided above, but it did not work. Can anyone please point me in the right direction?

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