Harmful Effects of Styrofoam

Maura Henry

What is Styrofoam?

Invented in 1941 for insulating homes and offices, styrofoam has taken on a completely different, and problematic, use today. It wasn’t until the 1960s that polystyrene started being manufactured and sold as coffee cups. Today, styrofoam dominates the disposable goods market, with coffee cups, plates, and coolers. The insulation abilities of this material is perfect for hot beverages and foods, however, has detrimental side effects for both the environment and our health.

Polystyrene is created from styrene, which is a petroleum byproduct that can also be found in plastics and resins. The base material for it is a styrene monomer, which is a carcinogen. Additionally, polystyrene products are made with a petroleum based plastic, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource. It’s used most often for its insulating and cushioning qualities. Foam polystyrene, or styrofoam, is 95 percent air. Overall, polystyrene is used in a wide variety of items, such as food service containers, cushioning for shipping delicate electronics, and insulation.

Effects on the Environment

Tons of styrofoam is disposed of into our landfills and oceans every year, not to mention the factories that make styrofoam also greatly pollute our environment. In fact, styrofoam manufacturers were the fifth largest producer of toxic waste in 1986. Additionally, styrofoam does not biodegrade and is non-recyclable. Researchers at Washington University found that it can take over 500 years for styrofoam to decompose.

From 2002 to 2015, over 316 million metric tons of styrofoam were produced and more than half of that was thrown away in the garbage within a year. Styrofoam products take up 30 percent of landfills. In the oceans, styrofoam is a major issue as many times it is eaten by wildlife, killing the sea creatures and destroying the biome. In 2006, The United Nations Environmental Program estimated that every square mile of ocean contained 46 thousand pieces of visible plastic.

Effects on Global Warming

The process of manufacturing polystyrene takes a major toll on the environment and contributes greatly to global warming. On top of the use and disposal of the product itself, energy consumption, greenhouse gasses, and various other environmental effects make polystyrene the second highest environmental pollutant behind aluminum. During the manufacturing process, hydrocarbons such as styrene and benzene are released into the air and react with nitrogen oxides, producing highly dangerous air pollutants.

How Styrofoam Affects Our Health

Because styrofoam is used so commonly in cups and plates, we unknowingly expose ourselves to the hazardous chemicals that make up polystyrene. The styrene monomer that makes up styrofoam is a suspected carcinogen and can easily seep into hot food and beverages. A 1986 study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency found at least a minimal amount of styrene residues in 100 percent of the human fat samples they had taken. That is extremely concerning considering that in cases of chronic exposure these chemicals can greatly affect the nervous system and respiratory tract. It’s been seen to cause irritation of the skin and eyes as well as symptoms that include depression, headaches, fatigue and weakness, and negatively affect kidney function. This fate is all too real for the over 90 thousand workers who are exposed to the chemicals that make up styrene. Additionally, microwaving styrofoam or having overheated beverages in styrofoam cups can release these chemicals into your food and drinks. Burning polystyrene can create carbon monoxide and send styrene monomers into the environment, which is very hazardous to our health.

Possible Solutions

There are a number of possible solutions that would decrease the United State’s consumption of styrofoam and better the pollution crisis. The easiest step in the right direction would obviously be to choose other options over styrofoam. Reusable items are very popular and relatively inexpensive. Even using disposable paper products and recycling is a better alternative because paper products are biodegradable and easily recyclable. A number of cities throughout the country, such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington DC have banned single use polystyrene containers. Limiting the amount of styrofoam used limits the amount of styrofoam discarded into the environment.

Multiple studies have also been conducted in hopes for a solution to get rid of the tons of polystyrene currently sitting in landfills and polluting the oceans. Chinese researchers have found promising results in testing how mealworms survive on a diet of polystyrene foam. European scientists also found similarly that waxworms could survive on polyethylene plastic bags. With further research, hopefully, we can find a way to eliminate the pollution that is damaging our ecosystems and decrease the use of styrofoam in the first place.