In 1941 a Dow Chemical Company engineer invented a new material made of polystyrene, which was trademarked by Dow as “Styrofoam.”  Although most people refer to all polystyrene products as “Styrofoam,” actual Styrofoam and expanded polystyrene foam have somewhat different structures and uses.

Whereas Styrofoam is an extruded polystyrene foam and is used as a water barrier and in the manufacture of thermal insulation and craft applications, expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) undergoes a more complex manufacturing process and has very different uses.  Small beads of polystyrene are steamed with chemicals until they expand to 50 times their original volume. After cooling and settling, the pre-expanded beads are then blown into a mold – such as a drink cup, food container or cooler. The beads are then steamed again, expanding them further until the mold is completely filled and all of the beads have fused.  The finished products are lightweight, inexpensive and about 95% air. The insulating properties and cheap manufacturing costs of EPS have made it a popular choice for businesses.

So why has EPS come under fire?

Scientists are still documenting the scope of plastic pollution and investigating its effects, but for decades it’s been known that one of the worst forms of plastic pollution is EPS foam.  It keeps your coffee hot, but it also persists in the environment – every bit of it is still out there, with much of it clogging our landfills, littering our streets, and polluting our environment, including waterways and oceans.  The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that we produce more than 3 million tons of polystyrene every year, and Americans throw away an estimated 25 billion polystyrene coffee cups a year.

Specifically:

  • EPS is made of non-renewable fossil fuels and synthetic chemical that pollute the air and add to climate change.  The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research has found that 57 chemical by-products are released during the creation of polystyrene products, all of which pollute the air and produce liquid and solid toxic waste that require proper disposal.
  • Animals sometimes eat expanded polystyrene foam.  Turtles and fish seem to mistake EPS for food, and eating it can kill them.  Not only can they not digest it, but the foam acts like a sponge that absorbs contaminants floating in the water.
  • EPS is not biodegradable.  It may break into small pieces, even minuscule pieces. amd the smaller the pieces, the harder it is to clean them up.
  • The chemicals in EPS may leach out if they come in contact with hot, greasy or acidic food and may also give you an unwanted dose of toxins.  WARNING; NEVER REHEAT FOOD IN AN EPS CONTAINER.

Where can I recycle Styrofoam?  Check the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, IL (SWALCO) website for places that accept different kinds of styrofoam.   https://www.swalco.org/

What can the average citizen do to combat the use of EPS:

  • Do Not Purchase EPS Products for Personal Use – Instead, purchase products that are compostable.  Compostable containers are made using corn starch, palm fiber, peat fiber, and wheat stocks and they are able to break down into soil-enriching compost.
  • Demand Changes in Corporate Practices – Thank restaurants that provide biodegradable take-home containers and pressure other restaurants that do not to change their practices.  Already, a number of independent restaurants and food service brands worldwide have shown how compostable containers can be used as a practical alternative, and some large American cities have announced that food service establishments, stores and manufacturers may not possess, sell or offer for use single-service EPS foam articles or polystyrene loose-fill packaging, such as packing peanuts.

Recycle EPS Containers – Recycling EPS containers requires that we be willing to take the containers to local recycling locations.