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Mace & Crown | May 25, 2017

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Styrofoam: How About a Better Alternative?

Styrofoam: How About a Better Alternative?

Ben Maxie
Contributing Writer

Styrofoam, a brand name for foam made out of polystyrene, has come under fire increasingly for environmental concerns. Many restaurants around ODU, from the cafeterias to Cane’s, use polystyrene take-out boxes and cups. It’s not hard to see why. A quick run to Wal-Mart reveals Styrofoam to be considerably cheaper than paper or cardboard, but perhaps we should be searching for a better alternative.

Once Styrofoam is made, it never really goes away– one of the major problems with the carryout material.

“It never really breaks down. It’s not biodegradable,” Amanda Laverty, an oceanography graduate student at ODU, said. Unlike cardboard or paper, polystyrene is ferociously resistant to water, bacteria, light, or most any other process that degrades other materials.

Also, Styrofoam often escapes the trash bin and makes its way to the ocean.

“It accounts for a huge amount of marine debris,” Laverty said. This is  problematic for marine life, which sometimes mistakes Styrofoam for food. Laverty added, “Polystyrene is toxic, it’s really harmful to marine life if it’s ingested.”

Polystyrene is also harmful to humans if handled badly. According to Laverty, “There’s evidence that polystyrene releases carcinogens if it’s heated, like, in a microwave.” Hot beverages, like coffee or hot chocolate, are usually put in paper cups for fear of releasing chemicals into the drink.

Several major cities including San Jose, Seattle and New York City have banned polystyrene take-out containers. The bans are often enacted due to problems with recycling food-contaminated material. A July 2015 study by New York City’s Department of Sanitation concluded, “Polystyrene cannot be economically recycled.” The city implemented the ban shortly after.

Mayor Bill de Blasio commented, “By removing nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from our landfills, streets and waterways, today’s announcement is a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City.”

Several universities, as well, have banned polystyrene. The University of California San Diego, for instance, banned Styrofoam in the 1980’s after campaigning by three Scripps Institute of Oceanography graduate students.

If Styrofoam is heated, it releases dangerous compounds, but even when used safely it is thrown away. Polystyrene isn’t recyclable, which means it is either buried forever in a landfill or makes its way into the environment where it wreaks havoc on marine life.

“These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City. We have better options, better alternatives,” Mayor de Blasio said.