Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic which is used in numerous products, ranging from disposable cutlery to CD jewel cases to packing peanuts. One form of polystyrene is extruded polystyrene foam, also known as XPS or Styrofoam (a trade name). XPS is used to make products such as packing materials, coffee cups, and disposable food trays. Like other petroleum-derived plastics, polystyrene can remain intact for hundreds of years before decomposing. Polystyrene takes up a disproportionate amount of space in our nation's landfills and is not often commercially viable to recycle. Due to the light weight of XPS, it is easily airborne and waterborne, and often ends up as litter. Polystyrene is one of the primary components of marine debris, and can be harmful to birds and marine mammals.
-Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
THE MANUFACTURE OF POLYSTYRENE
The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.
McDonald's voluntarily stopped the use of CFCs (which destroy the ozone layer) as blowing agents (chemicals used to blow tiny holes in the plastic, making it moldable) in the beaded version of the foam in 1988. They replaced CFCs with Benzene and ethylene Both flammable and toxic, these two killers are the petroleum and natural gas products that go to make styrene, the base material for polystyrene foam. The EPA identified ethylene and benzene, the chemical precursors to polystyrene as the 4th and 6th highest waste production processes respectively. Benzene is a known carcinogen, and both are highly flammable.
1. "Polystyrene Fact Sheet," Foundation for Advancements in Science & Education, LA, California.
2. Brian Lipsett, "Areas of Expertise Pertaining to McDonalds Corp."
Styrene (vinyl benzene) is the feed stock used to manufacture polystyrene. A neurotoxin, Styrene impairs the central and peripheral nervous systems. Exposure to Styrene in the workplace has also been associated with chromosomal aberrations, so it is considered a mutagen. In a study of 12 breast milk samples from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, 75% were contaminated with styrene amongst other hazardous chemicals.
Recent studies of Styrene distribution in human tissue have startling results. Long term exposure (3.2 to 10 years) to small quantities of styrene (1 to 10 parts/million, whereas a person manufacturing polystyrene may receive 50 to 100 ppm over an 8 hr. period) cause a wide spectrum of adverse health effects including neurotoxic, hematological (low platelet and hemoglobin values), cytogenetic (chromosomal and cytogenic abnormalities) and carcinogenic effects. Neurotoxic effects include fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping, poor performance on memory and stimuli response tests and nerve conduction velocity abnormalities. Other effects include low platelet and hemoglobin values, chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities at levels below 50 ppm.
Neurotoxic damage is as serious if not more serious than carcinogenic impact. Chemicals like styrene are known to indiscriminately attack tissue and the nervous systems. With growing evidence that ailments like Parkinson's Disease are linked to man-made toxins, the public should take all necessary steps to reduce exposure to neurotoxins. Parkinson's Disease may not often kill people, but this degenerative brain disorder will rob a person of intelligence and hamper speech, walking, and the ability to perform simple tasks. Therefore, it would appear wise to avoid using polystyrene products when consuming food and beverages.
1. George Baggett, "Styrene Migration Into Human Adipose Tissue."
2. Eric Adler, "Zeroing in on what causes Parkinson's," The Kansas City Star, 6/17/90, Sect. I, pages 5-6http://www.ejnet.org/plastics/polystyrene/production.html
IMPACT ON MARINE LIFE
On an island in the middle of the Pacific (1,000 miles from the nearest big city), 40 percent of Laysan albatross chicks die from eating plastic pollution. This is because plastic never dissolves, but just degrades into tiny particulars.
Scientists estimate that around the world, up to one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from eating plastic.
-Monterey Bay Aquarium
NRDC's Switchboard Blog
Styrofoam is very light and commonly escapes from garbage containment and washes into inland rivers (particularly in NYC which is bounded by water) to become part of huge ocean islands of garbage. CLICK HERE to see a video of "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch" that stretches from the coast of California to Japan, and it's estimated to be twice the size of Texas.
Mission to break up Pacific island of rubbish twice the size of Texas
A high-seas mission departs from San Francisco next month to map and explore a sinister and shifting 21st-century continent: one twice the size of Texas and created from six million tonnes of discarded plastic.
LOTS MORE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT INFO
Earth Resources Foundation
report on Polystyrene Foam Report
Plastics vs. the Environment, The Polystyrene Page
Problems with production, health, environment and disposal
EJnet.org: Web Resources for Environmental Justice Activists
Eliminate the Use of Polystyrene
The Gazette, 3/6/09, The Styrofoam dilemma
Technology Transfer Network Air Toxics Web Site
Styrene Hazard Summary-Created in 4/92; Revised in 1/00
EFFORTS TO END POLYSTYRENE USE
California's State Senate voted to ban all Styrofoam food containers.
The bill will now go to the Sate Assembly (LA Times). About 50 municipalities in CA have already enacted bans. New York should follow suit and be the second state to enact a Styrofoam container ban! Please contact your state senator and representative, asking them to call for a statewide ban. (see Good Magazine)
City of San Clemente, California Polystyerene Ban
Portland Public School Washable Tray Pilot Project
NYS Dept of Environmental Conservation
Green Schools-Recycling and More
New York's Green Cleaning Program, Be clean, be green, be healthy
New York Times, 4/13/09, Using Fungi to Replace Styrofoam
State Senator Liz Krueger (D- Manhattan) working to limit polystyrene use
Students from Debby Lee Cohen's 3D Studio, Body in Time class at Parsons the New School for Design, constructed a sculpture made from about 1,000 used trays. The dirty trays were collected (and washed) from NYC public schools including PS 41, NEST+m and PS 163. The intention of the project was to communicate the enormity of theenvironmental problem created by the use of these trays.
CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE MOVIE
If you have an older computer, CLICK HERE