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Polystyrene, often known by its commercial name Styrofoam, is used to make a variety of products. It can be used to create packing material for fragile goods. It also makes a good insulator and can be made into coolers that are designed to be used only a few times. Maybe one of the most common goods made of polystyrene are disposable tableware and takeout containers. Disposable clamshell containers, plates, and cups are still produced today, despite there being much more eco-friendly alternatives available. There has been a push to restrict commercial use of polystyrene takeout containers in favor of more environmentally friendly options because polystyrene is considered harmful for multiple reasons we explore below:
Polystyrene is not biodegradable and can take hundreds, even thousands, of years to decompose in the environment. Several environmental factors play a role in the rate of decomposition, which is part of the reason the estimated timeline is so broad. The fact that it takes at least hundreds of years to biodegrade means that most of the polystyrene ever created still exists in some form today, taking up space in landfills and natural environments.
Litter and Marine Pollution
Polystyrene is lightweight, and can easily be carried by the wind, which contributes to litter in our streets, parks, and natural environments. It is particularly problematic in marine environments, where it can break down into smaller pieces and be ingested by wildlife, causing harm or even death. The smaller pieces can block their digestive tracts, which can cause fatal obstructions or starvation. Starvation and malnutrition occur because consuming microplastics “trick” animals into thinking they are full, so they don’t eat real foods.
Polystyrene is derived from petroleum (oil), a non-renewable resource. Its production process involves significant energy use and releases pollutants into the atmosphere, including greenhouse gases.
When burned, polystyrene can release toxic chemicals like styrene monomer, benzene, and other hydrocarbons. These pollutants can cause health problems for both humans and animals, including respiratory issues and potentially cancer. Research is still being conducted on full implications of these pollutants.
While technically polystyrene can be recycled, the process is complicated and not economically viable in most cases. It often doesn't make economic sense to transport lightweight but bulky polystyrene products to recycling facilities, so they end up in landfill instead. Some regions have started to allow people to dispose of polystyrene foam products with their plastic recyclables, but these locations are very much in the minority for now.
When used as food containers, hot foods and liquids can cause polystyrene to leach styrene, a suspected carcinogen, which might pose health risks.
For the reasons discussed above, many cities and countries have begun banning the use of polystyrene food containers and other products. Cities and countries have begun to encourage these businesses use more eco-friendly options such as bagasse sugarcane and bamboo. Options like containers made from recycled plastic that can again be recycled or reused are a better alternative to polystyrene foam containers.