For decades, polystyrene has been one of the most commonly used plastics because it is lightweight, durable, and inexpensive.
As we single out food containers, disposable coffee cups, and foam coolers, we'll discuss their impact on the environment and the steps you and your business can take to reduce your usage.
What Is "Styrofoam"?
Polystyrene, identified by the plastic #6 symbol, can take multiple chemical forms. Polystyrene is often mistakenly referred to as Styrofoam, a trademarked product most commonly used as building insulation. That means what you likely call "Styrofoam" is actually expanded polystyrene (EPS), a plastic material frequently used to create a variety of consumer products.
Polystyrene is a preferred material in the packaging and food industries because it's lightweight (95% air!), has insulation properties that keep food and drinks hot or cold, and is durable enough to protect items during shipping. In practice, EPS is most often used for coffee cups, packing materials, carry-out cartons, and egg cartons.
While polystyrene is known to be cost-effective, it's unfortunately very difficult and costly to recycle. Most recycling facilities are unable to process EPS because, unlike other plastics, it's bulky and often contaminated. Its brittle form means it easily breaks into tiny pieces and disperses, an additional complexity for recyclers.
The Environmental Impacts
Every year, the world produces more than 14 million tons of polystyrene. Because recycling the material is not possible in most cases, many generators place it in the trash, which results in large amounts ending up in landfills and the environment. The EPA estimates that in 2017, the United States generated 90,000 tons of polystyrene containers—and less than 5,000 tons were recycled. Given that polystyrene does not biodegrade, it will stay in the environment for thousands of years.
Further, the lightweight material is easily carried into waterways and oceans through the wind—contributing a massive amount of material to the Pacific Garbage Patch, a flotilla of garbage twice the size of Texas floating around in the northern Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California.
Polystyrene bans in the u.s.
Environmental groups have advocated for polystyrene and Styrofoam bans since the 1980s, when Berkeley was the first city to ban polystyrene in 1988. Fast-forward to today, several cities, counties, and states have banned plastic foam products. Below are some of the places in the United States with polystyrene bans:
- In 2017, San Francisco passed an ordinance prohibiting the sale of all polystyrene products. This includes everything from coolers to food packaging to pool toys. In place of EPS, the city encourages businesses to use eco-friendly packaging materials that have less of a negative impact on the environment.
- Maine became the first state to ban EPS in 2019. The law was set to go into effect January 2021 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When enforced, it will prohibit restaurants, caterers, coffee shops, and grocery stores from using to-go foam containers.
- New York State banned the distribution of polystyrene food containers used for food and beverages served by restaurants, caterers, food trucks, retail stores, delis, and grocery stores. The ban also prohibits the sale of packing peanuts. This ban is due to go into effect in 2022.
How To Reduce Polystyrene In Your Business
Refuse Polystyrene whenever possible
The most effective way to reduce Styrofoam and polystyrene is by refusing it altogether. Talk to your procurement team about refusing to buy foam products. A great place to start is in your business' kitchen or break room. Replace all of the EPS cups, plates, bowls, and to-go containers with products manufactured from recycled products, packaging containing biodegradable or compostable products, and those that your community can easily recycle.
You can start small and keep adding to the list until your workplace becomes entirely polystyrene-free!
WORK WITH ECO-FRIENDLY SUPPLIERS
Work with manufacturers who use eco-friendly packaging instead of expanded or extruded polystyrene. You may discover a particular supplier is better-aligned with your business' sustainability goals. Or perhaps you can encourage your current suppliers to use less packaging. Making smarter purchasing decisions and setting standards early in the process makes it easier for organizations to refuse polystyrene from the get-go.
Reuse or donate packing peanuts
If you do receive packing peanuts, you can reuse them for when you send your own packages. Some packing and shipping companies, like UPS, will also accept donations of clean packing peanuts. Call your local shipping company to see if they will accept them. If they will not take them, they can usually point you in the right direction of a company that will!
Polystyrene recycling solutions
If you can't use any of the options above, don't place the polystyrene (or "Styrofoam") in the garbage. While recycling is limited for expanded polystyrene, there are recycling markets for it. Earth911 Recycling Search can help you find #6 plastic recycling in your area.
Still need some help on eliminating polystyrene from your day-to-day operations? Feel free to reach out to us here—we're used to solving complex problems!