The Environmental Impact Of Styrofoam
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Understanding the Environmental Impact of Styrofoam Packaging

Styrofoam packaging has a huge environmental impact. From polluting oceans and contributing to global climate change, to endangering wildlife and causing danger to human health, the consequences are far-reaching and extensive. Get an in-depth look at its most harmful effects here.

What is Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is a trademarked brand name for a type of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) that is used for a variety of purposes. It is a lightweight, waterproof, and insulating material made from styrene monomer.

Stacks of styrofoam board

Types Of Styrofoam – EPS & XPS

Both EPS and XPS are made from polystyrene, which is a type of plastic. However, they have different physical properties and are used for different purposes.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS)

This is the most common type of styrofoam and is used for a variety of purposes, including packaging materials, disposable cups, food containers, insulation, and other products. EPS is lightweight, waterproof, and insulating.

Extruded polystyrene (XPS)

This type of styrofoam is denser and stronger than EPS and is often used for insulation, construction, and other applications that require greater strength and durability. XPS is also more resistant to moisture and can be used in wet environments.

How Is Styrofoam Made?

EPS Styrofoam is made by expanding polystyrene beads with vapour. To make them expand, special blowing agents are used, including butane, propane, pentane, methylene chloride and chlorofluorocarbons. These grains are then heated and exposed to vapour, causing them to expand into small pearls or beans.

Pressure is then applied to these expanded beads with more vapour, causing them to join together and form large blocks of EPS. These blocks can be cut into sheets or moulded into various shapes, depending on their intended use.

Styrofoam pellets being made in a glass chamber
Takeaway meals in styrofoam and wrapped in cling wrap

What Is Styrofoam Used For?

Styrofoam is commonly used for packaging materials, disposable cups, food containers, insulation, and other products.

  1. Food packaging: Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam is commonly used to make food packaging products such as cups, plates, and take-out containers. This type of styrofoam is lightweight, insulating, and moisture-resistant, making it an ideal material for keeping food and beverages at a consistent temperature.
  2. Moulded styrofoam for consumer goods: Expanded polystyrene foam can also be moulded into various shapes and sizes to make consumer goods such as electronics packaging, protective casings for fragile items, and foam inserts for shipping products. This type of styrofoam is designed to absorb shock and protect items during transport.
  3. Packing peanuts: Polystyrene foam can be shaped into small, lightweight pellets that are commonly used as packing materials for shipping fragile items. These packing peanuts are designed to cushion the contents of a package during transport and prevent damage.
  4. Cooler boxes for medical supplies: Extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam is often used to make cooler boxes for medical supplies, including vaccines and other temperature-sensitive products. XPS foam is denser and stronger than EPS, making it more durable and better suited for applications that require greater strength and insulation.
The environmental impace of styrofoam - A large piece of weather styrofoam in nature

What Is The Environmental Impact of Styrofoam

Styrofoam or polystyrene is a major contributor to global plastic pollution.

Why Is Styrofoam Worse Than Other Types Of Plastic?

The properties of styrofoam that make it so useful being lightweight as well as bulky is what makes it a waste nightmare.

Because it is so lightweight, it can easily be carried by wind and water, spreading far and wide if not disposed of properly. This makes it difficult to contain and remove from the environment.

Styrofoam takes up a lot of space in landfills and can be difficult to transport and store. This can lead to overcrowding in landfills, which can have negative environmental impacts. Furthermore, the lightweight and bulky properties of styrofoam can also make it more expensive to transport and dispose of, which can add to its overall environmental impact.

River with plastic pollution including styrofoam

Toxicity

Once in the marine environment, styrofoam can cause significant harm to wildlife, as animals can mistake it for food. Additionally, polystyrene contains toxic substances such as styrene and benzene, and the beads of polystyrene produced by suspension polymerization are tiny and hard, which can break down into toxic micro pieces in oceans, potentially contaminating the marine food chain and ultimately, the human diet.

Discovering the Scale of Styrofoam Pollution

It’s estimated that the world also produces more than 29 million US tons of styrofoam each year and that Americans alone throw away around 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups every year. Source: Earthday.org

Single-use items used for food packaging are only used for a matter of minutes before becoming waste.

The Effects of Styrofoam on Human Health

Styrofoam is not considered safe for human health due to the presence of a chemical called styrene, which can leach out of the foam and into food or drinks that come into contact with it. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and has been linked to a variety of health problems, including respiratory issues, nervous system effects, and developmental problems in children.

In addition to the potential health effects of styrene exposure, the manufacturing and disposal of styrofoam can also have negative impacts on human health. The production of styrene itself can release toxic chemicals into the air and water, and the disposal of styrofoam in landfills or through incineration can also release harmful pollutants.

The chemicals used to create styrofoam are linked to several health conditions, from thyroid disruption and obesity, to stunted growth. Additionally, the particles of broken-down Styrofoam that find their way into our water systems can be absorbed by aquatic organisms – and eventually make their way up the food chain into us. Ingesting these particles can cause cancer and reproductive toxicity.

Environmental Impact of Styrofoam Packaging - huge pile of styrofoam waste

The Styrofoam Waste Problem

The harmful effects of Styrofoam waste have been known for a while now, yet progress on reducing its use has been slow. However, more and more countries are taking action to reduce the impact of styrofoam packaging, such as banning it or introducing a fee for any plastic packaging or takeaway containers.

Under the National Plastics Planthe Commonwealth Government has committed to phase out loose fill and moulded polystyrene packaging by July 2022, as well as expanded polystyrene foodware, oxo-degradable plastics, and PVC packaging labels by December 2022.

It seems that these commitments are happening slower than the targets. Most states have banned polystyrene food and drink containers but consumer goods like electronics and white goods are still sold with moulded styrofoam packaging.

Styrofoam food containers in a bin

Can You Recycle Styrofoam?

Although Styrofoam can be recycled, the process is highly inefficient. This is mainly due to its voluminous nature and lightweight, occupying large spaces in commercial trash cans. As Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is composed of 90% air, recycling it requires a significant amount of energy and resources.

How To Dispose Of Styrofoam Australia?

There are some facilities that recycle styrofoam in Australia but it is not a service offered by curbside recycling.

South Australia has the Which Bin website where you can find out what can be put in curbside recycling as well as providing solutions for hard-to-recycle items. There are a number of locations that will accept styrofoam recycling. Check with your local council to see what services are available in your area.

If you are not able to drop to a recycling centre then you will need to put it in your landfill bin. Which Bin provided these tips:

To prevent polystyrene from becoming lodged and stuck inside the bin, blocking materials from being emptied, please ensure that the polystyrene is placed inside of a plastic bag and then broken up into small pieces. Make sure the bag is tied at the top to prevent pieces from falling out and expel any air inside of the bag before sealing it.

Styrofoam piece broken in half

Returning Styrofoam To The Store

To minimize the environmental impact of styrofoam you could try returning it to the store where you purchased the goods from eg. Harvey Norman, Good Guys, Bunnings etc and ask them to recycle the packaging. They are likely to have a compactor for the polystyrene at their premises and will then send this off for recycling as it is much cheaper to recycle it than pay for a landfill skip for it. It also encourages these retailers to put pressure back on their suppliers to choose more sustainable and easily recyclable packaging such as moulded cardboard instead.

Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Styrofoam Packaging

One alternative is to use biodegradable packaging made from materials like cornstarch, sugarcane, or bamboo. These materials can break down naturally over time and do not contribute to the global plastic pollution problem. Another option is to use reusable containers made from materials like glass, stainless steel, or durable plastics. These containers can be washed and reused multiple times, reducing the need for single-use packaging.

Some companies are also using innovative materials, such as mushroom-based packaging, which is made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, and can be grown in specific shapes to fit packaging needs.

Mycellium growing on wood - eco alternative

Making the Right Choices With Sustainable Packaging

When selecting packaging materials, businesses need to consider their environmental impact. Styrofoam is one of the least sustainable choices out there, and its production and disposal have a major effect on the environment. Moving away from any single-use or disposable items altogether is the best choice but interim solutions like compostable products are better than styrofoam.

Transitioning From Single-Use To Reusable

Swapping to more disposable products is not going to solve our waste crisis. Businesses must also reduce their overall use of packaging by implementing strategies like bulk purchasing, reducing unnecessary packaging, and encouraging customers to bring their own reusable containers.

By adopting these eco-friendly alternatives and practices, we can all work together to reduce the negative environmental impact of styrofoam.

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