Convenience is a big factor in today’s society, especially when it comes to eating, which is why styrofoam has been such a staple in fast food restaurants, for takeout orders anywhere, and in the home when the pool, beach, or a large party at the house is calling. But did you ever stop to think how this convenience is affecting you and the earth?
While many of us call it styrofoam, that’s actually a trademarked brand name specific to the polystyrene foam used for thermal insulation and craft applications, not actually the polystyrene we use regularly.
Used in a whole range of disposable products, polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic foam that is incredibly slow to break down in landfill. And because it will sit there for quite some time, it has the overwhelming potential to leach harmful chemicals into waterways for millennia to come.
A 1986 EPA report on solid waste concluded that the polystyrene manufacturing process was the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste, while The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. Furthermore, the process of making it pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste. There are also concerns over how the material can impact human health by containing hormone-disrupting chemicals.
When it ends up in the ocean — becoming among the 86 percent of disposable plastic that’s not recycled — it breaks down much too soon, becoming microplastic that marine organisms can then ingest, resulting in toxins that make their way up the food chain.
It’s safe to say this “convenient” disposable material is simply wreaking havoc on our planet and our bodies. But finally, there’s something being done about it.
In an effort to be waste-free by 2020, the city of San Francisco just unanimously voted to ban the sale of polystyrene products by 1 January 2017. While cities throughout the U.S. have been limiting its use, this ban is the most extensive one to be put into place in the country to date. By 1 July 2017, polystyrene fish and meat trays will also be illegal to sell.
San Francisco first banned polystyrene take-away containers in 2007 as a result of environmental concerns, since a whopping 25 billion polystyrene cups are thrown out each year in the US alone. More than 100 cities have followed suit since 2007, including Washington DC, declaring a similar ban on polystyrene take-away containers.
Not everyone is celebrating San Francisco’s ruling, however. In fact, the American Chemistry Council has announced that polystyrene is actually more environmentally friendly than some biodegradable options, due to its light weight that produces less carbon emissions during transportation. “All packaging leaves an environmental footprint,” explained Tim Shestek, the council’s senior director.
Nevertheless, polystyrene is one of the most popular and long-lasting of the materials we use today, so banning it from a major city is certainly something to celebrate, as we find hope for the future of respecting our earth.
The ordinance was sponsored in part by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who told the San Francisco Examiner, “I’m delighted that San Francisco continues to be a leader on the environmental issues of our day as we’ve got plastic floatin’ in our ocean the size of Texas.”