A Personal Tale of Polystyrene

The noon sun is beating down on a surprisingly sultry September day.  I am riding my bike; I am hungry, and I’ve forgotten to pack a lunch.  At that moment I’m also cruising by Midtown Global Market, a Vanity Fair of delectable edibles many of which I very much regret are served in polystyrene containers.

Midtown Global Market

But this story begins in the 1990’s.  Does anybody remember back then when you could recycle polystyrene food boxes in Minneapolis?  You could drop them off at Rainbow Foods.  When Rainbow suddenly pulled the plug on this service, I made a few calls to find the reason:  the only polystyrene recycling plant in the region had shut down.  At that point, in order to recycle polystyrene in Minnesota I would need to ship it to one of the coasts.

The Coasts

This didn’t seem a reasonable option, but mired in indecision I continued saving my polystyrene containers from Szechuan Express (does anybody remember Szechuan Express on Hennepin, Uptown Minneapolis? it closed in 2003) for several months, with a nebulous hope that some unknown party would intervene and I would be able to resume recycling them.  As the stack of polystyrene boxes grew, the idea of adding to it became repellant to me.  And so, for the first time ever, I gave up buying a product simply because of the packaging.

The Packaging

Since then, detailed attention to the garbage I create has become integrated into my thought process.  For a while it felt almost like a neurosis which tormented me, and sometimes, vicariously, my husband.  But now I see that as a phase akin to the early stages of vegetarianism; maybe sobriety. You have made this life-changing choice, it requires effort and self-discipline to carry out, you feel strongly about it; and you can’t help but notice all the people around you who are still doing that thing you have given up.  It can be maddening.

But as an ongoing effort toward garbage reduction has become a natural, comfortable part of my world, I can hold my conviction more gently. I can shrug off responsibility for the habits others choose, and return focus to myself;  including staying as positive as possible about environmental issues, while still doing what I can to help.

Which brings us close to the present time, a sultry September day, last Wednesday to be specific.  I’m biking past Midtown Global Market.  I’m hungry.  I’ve forgotten to pack a lunch.  An inner dialogue tells me to steer clear of Midtown Global Market, since I’ve previously concluded that any food I might like would unfortunately be served in polystyrene.  But on second thought, I decide to lock up my bike, stop in and see what happens.

Inside, I beeline to Holyland Deli. They have their small and large polystyrene containers displayed at the cash register.  “Is there any way I can get a Falafel Sandwich with no foam container?”  I query, making sure my delivery is as upbeat as possible.    “Maybe wrap it in foil or paper?”

There is a pause as the cashier closest to me considers how to respond.  Her co-worker retreats, leaving her to deal with the problem customer.  But soon the cashier smiles brightly and says, “Yeah, I could do that for you.  Do you want tahini, tzatziki, or hot sauce?”

Holyland Deli, Midtown Global Market

“Tahini and hot sauce, please,” I say, surprised by my good fortune.

As I wait for my food, I see the cashier walk over to the cook.  I’m certain she is passing along my request, and the conversation is taking longer than I’d like.  I can only see the cook’s back, but I imagine that I detect annoyance in his posture.  I avert my eyes as the friendly cashier looks over at me, trying to hide my curiosity.  After a few minutes, the cook produces the foil clad falafel sandwich with a deadpan expression.  I feel I’m pressing my luck but smile and say, “thank you, no bag please.”

And was that a delicious falafel sandwich?  Oh yeaahh!  Thanks Holyland at Midtown Global Market.

OH, YEAAHH!

I also want to give shouts-out to Midtown Global Market’s Salty Tart, and Jakeeno’s Trattoria for what I discovered when I called to research their packaging.

The woman at Salty Tart said they try to use as little packaging as possible, and all their plates and utensils are compostable.  They also re-use coffee bags they get from Dunn Brothers, and re-use their flour bags to deliver baguettes.

Salty Tart at Midtown Global Market: Compostable Plates and Award Winning Pastries

The packaging at Jakeeno’s is more conventional, but the fellow there said that if asked, he would serve food on actual dishes and wash them.  He was so nice and eager to please!

Jakeeno’s at Midtown Global Market: Pizza, Pasta and Nice People Answering the Phone

In the national news California aims to be the first state to ban polystyrene:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/29/california-styrofoam-ban-_n_939971.html

Motherload of Polystyrene, a.k.a. Styrofoam

And finally, if you’d like to know more about why polystyrene is a problem, check out the information below, copied from the Green Restaurant Association Website.

http://www.dinegreen.com/customers/education.asp

Polystyrene Foam (Styrofoam)

Problem

  • Polystyrene (PS) foam is made from petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.
  • The production of PS foam causes air pollution and health hazards for workers.
  • PS foam is not biodegradable, lasts in landfills for centuries and takes up more space than paper.
  • Once in the environment, PS foam quickly crumbles into particles dangerous to wildlife.
  • If incinerated by municipal waste facility, PS foam is reduced to toxic, airborne chemicals that cannot be effectively trapped by pollution control devices.
  • PS foam may leach toxic chemicals into food, especially when heated in a microwave.
  • PS foam that is manufactured with HCFC-22 is harmful to the ozone layer, though is less destructive than its chemical cousins CFC-11 and CFC-12 (33).
  • PS foam is not accepted at most recycling facilities and its recycling rate is very low.

Solution

Replace all polystyrene foam products with biodegradable and less toxic alternatives such as recycled and unbleached paper, plant-based plastics, and tree-free fibers such as, bagasse, kenaf or hemp.

What is PS Foam?

Polystyrene foam is a plastic made from petroleum; a non-renewable resource. Most people know polystyrene foam as Styrofoam, which is the trade name of a PS foam product used for housing insulation. Polystyrene foam is a lightweight material, about 95% air

Why Not Use PS Foam?

An environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger associated with styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene. About 300,000 workers in over 20,000 facilities in the U.S. risk exposure to styrene (34). Acute health effects are generally irritation of the skin, eyes, upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal system. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system; symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, weakness, as well as minor effects on kidney function and blood can occur. A voluntary compliance program has been adopted by industries using styrene. The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) unsuccessfully tried to limit the amount of worker exposure to styrene to 50 parts per million – a federal court overturned the ruling in 1992 so the limit now stands at 100 parts per million (35).

The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste. Toxic chemical byproducts are also released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. Styrene, a component of polystyrene, may leach into food from polystyrene food ware (especially when heated or microwaved). Styrene is a neurotoxin that impairs the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Polystyrene foam packaging waste in the environment poses a threat to both terrestrial and marine wildlife. Wildlife is attracted to food residue on packaging, or in the case of marine animals, can mistake the floating plastic packaging for food. After it is consumed, polystyrene can choke animals or clog their digestive tracts. For this reason, food packaging that is easily biodegradable in the environment can reduce the negative impact of inappropriate disposal. In 2006, the US disposed of 870,000 tons of polystyrene plastic plates and cups (plus 590,000 tons on other polystyrene products), according to the EPA’s report on Municipal Solid Waste. (36).

Frustrated with the increasing amount of un-recyclable food packaging waste in our marine environment, streets, storm drains and landfills, local governments across the nation are prohibiting the use of un-recyclable plastics such as foamed polystyrene in takeout disposable food packaging. These plastics, impractical to recycle due to their lightweight, are the most common form of marine debris and cost local governments millions in storm drain clean up costs. These costs are especially high for communities with impaired waterways. Many communities in the state of California have banned polystyrene takeout food packaging and the number is growing (37).

Can PS Foam be Recycled?

While the technology for recycling polystyrene is available, the market for recycling is very small. Most waste disposal companies in the U.S. do not have the infrastructure to recycle PS foam. Within the last decade, a network of polystyrene recycling plants have developed in the U.S., but few food service operations are linked to this system (38).

Does PS Foam Deplete the Ozone Layer?

Prior to 1988, some PS foam was made by using a gas containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). This chemical was proven to break down ozone in the lower atmosphere. When this issue came to light, polystyrene manufacturers negotiated a gradual phase-out of CFCs in the production process. However, some polystyrene foam is now manufactured with HCFC-22, which, though less destructive than its chemical cousins, CFC-11 and CFC-12, is still a greenhouse gas harmful to the ozone layer (33).

What are the Alternatives to PS Foam?

Products for foodservice and other industries are now being manufactured from post-consumer recycled paper, bamboo, plant-based plastics (“biopolymers”), and other renewable resources. Unsoiled paper products can be recycled, and soiled paper and biopolymer products can be composted.

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10 responses to “A Personal Tale of Polystyrene

  1. Allison…

    I am so impressed by your efforts here…thank you again for your commitment to making positive changes and for sharing your experience. I look forward to your Wednesday Posts!

    Much Love! Jacqueline

    • Amanda, agh I had no idea. So they eliminated PS cups then brought them back? If you are on twitter, tweet about it. I’ve heard that giant corporations closely follow what people are saying about them on twitter.

  2. Thank you so much for this article and all of your research.

    I am truly revolted by polystyrene and avoid it when ever possible. I assume businesses continue to use it because it costs less; I would gladly pay an additional amount for biodegradable packaging. A business could even make a big deal about it’s environmentally friendly change in packaging.

    I was super pleased when I went to May Day Cafe (highly recommended: http://goo.gl/oyPei) and my to-go cup lid was also a compressed paper product.

    I took to inquiring about containers for left overs or to-go containers some time ago and requested foil wrapping as an alternative. Minneapolis will accept washed aluminum foil for recycling(http://goo.gl/MBjq2), and aluminum is the cheapest and cleanest material to recycle.

    Another method I love (but continually forget to do) is keeping a couple gladware or ziplock containers in the trunk. If I have leftovers or am ordering something to go, I have my own reusable container.

    • Wow, Peter! I get excited by that stuff too. I can recycle more plastics at Whole Foods than curbside recycling will accept, but those PS #6 coffee lids are NOT accepted.

      I agree, it seems that bringing your own reusable container is the ideal, followed by aluminum foil. I try to bring containers along when I go to sit down restaurants, and have considered keeping a roll of aluminum foil in my car as a back up. I try to keep plastic utensils and cups in the car, too.

      I think there are SO MANY people who would pay five or ten cents extra to not get their meal in polystyrene. Seems many restaurants decide their customers don’t want to pay extra for this before ever giving them the opportunity. But ultimately restaurants will respond to what customers want. That’s how Capitalism works. It’s good to talk to management at your favorite restaurants so they are aware of the demand.

      Thanks for your comment and links!

  3. This doesn’t have anything to do with PS but I was in a grocery store with Emily and I said “we should really buy that tub of whipped butter because it is better for us” from reading Eat This not That, and Emily said “I would but I don’t like the packaging, all those tubs,” and she alluded to you. So, you see, this blog is working!

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