Thursday, October 30, 2008

Styrofoam - Not All Its Puffed Up to Be

My City is considering a ban on styrofoam. They asked me for my opinion (someone appears to think I might know something - ha!). So, I did a little research...

So Styrofoam is a trade name, I think, and the real offender is polystyrene.

Yes, I personally think the stuff is really pretty bad, from a number of angles:

1) The production of "styrofoam" (= styrene) products produces by-products that are really very bad for the environment. The same is true of many (maybe most) plastics. To my mind, the most notable of these by-products, getting a lot of attention lately, are in a category called endocrine-disruptors. These are chemicals that mimic real hormones (the endocrine system), and cause it to go awry. The most well studied effects are those that mimic estrogen. This disrupts mating in many aquatic animals (aquatic ones because thats where the by-products eventually end up, in the water), because the natural hormonal cues are replaced by these synthetic ones. This has had the largest impacts on waterfowl, and reptiles (like gators). There is also the problem of fluorocarbons emitted during production, but those have already been slated for elimination by some year (2030? not sure on that date). To be fair, you will read styrofoam advocacy pieces that will, quite rightly, point out that on a pound-for-pound basis, styrofoam production is not nearly as bad as other plastics. This is because it is so light, so it takes a lot of styrofoam to have the same negative environmental impact as say, a PVC product (and PVC production is VERY bad in its by-products). Visualize a pound of styrofoam (enormous) and a pound of PVC (this is like irrigation pipe, so pretty small) and you'll get the gist of this. A little styrofoam can go a really long way. The pollution that each individual piece of styrofoam makes is quite small, as it is actually mostly air. So, to some, this makes it an ok choice for something like your "to-go" container at a restaurant. There is less plastic in the styrofoam container than a hard plastic one.

2) The litter! No other plastics seem to find their way into the environment post-production, as litter, in nearly the same way as styrofoam. It breaks down into those irritating little beads, and those persist for a really long time and find their way into positively everything. They collect on the ocean surface - there is a whole layer of them floating out in the tropical pacific. Is this bad? It is not clear. The environmentalists claim that fish and turtles eat the pellets, and die. To my knowledge, there is no real science indicating that this is true. It is true that we find lots of debris (plastic bags, styrofoam, etc.) in the stomachs of turtles that wash up dead, so they do appear to eat it. Is this what actually killed the turtle? We don't know. It is probably not a good thing, in any case, for this stuff to be floating out there. If any City is considering a ban on styrofoam this ought to be the underlying reason. If you ban it for health reasons, you really need to consider looking at all plastics.

3) It is difficult to recycle. Most places wont take it the way they'll take plastic bottles - so at least plastic bottles have the potential to be re-used Ok, there are lots of plastic bottles out there not being recycled (I read recently that 85% are not recycled!). But, the beads cannot even be picked up easily!. You can find places to take the packing peanuts and re-use them, if you to do the legwork yourself. But, a broken styrofoam cooler simply gets trashed - almost no one will turn that into a new product, because of the styrene.

4) Styrenes are downright bad for people. The styrene from your coffee cup or take-out container leeches into your food, particularly if the food is warm. If you re-heat the product in the microwave be especially wary. They've linked this to all kinds of health problems, largely similar to the endocrine-disruptor problem mentioned above. Lots of it is rather tenuous, but I reckon eating plastic just cannot be good for you either way. The same is true of other plastics in many cases - but the meltable nature of styrofoam seems to make it particularly problematic.

Keep in mind that there are good uses of styrene products. The EPS (something Polystyrene) "shock absorption system" in my children's car seats is none other than "styrofoam". It makes really good insulation for buildings and it is found in many homes (this is one of the re-use options for the stuff). So, I think you have to be careful how you word any sort of ban.

There are a few sources I can give you that I believe to be reputable. There are millions of hits on Google, but I am being quite careful where I send you, so that the sources are not too environmentally extreme. "Environmentalist" is a bad word in my world as much as it is to many politicians, for many of the same reasons. Environmentalists are viewed as extremists who will go to any end to further their cause - including touting very bad science as fact. This makes us scientists really uncomfortable.

Anyway, I think these are trustworthy sites.

1 comment:

seth7123 said...

well hello, very interesting... well i dont know if you have heard about the man who made his own island out of plastic bottles...? That is what my friends and i are planing to do. As sophomores in High School currently have about 100 bottles (we just started Monday) We are planning on going out and buying Styrofoam to put into the bottles in case they leak or anything. We were also wondering where it is purchased and for how much. Your article showed me a lot, and instead of throwing it away we will use it. =]