Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Polystyrene-the students speak

I asked the students what they did at school for Earth day today. Most of them didn't even know it was Earth Day! This could be the subject of my blog! But I'll refrain.

One young man retold a story of how his time on the student council had been full of talk, information gathering, and reporting the facts regarding getting rid of the styrofoam trays used in the lunchroom. Several of the students had taken it upon themselves to get information on the hazards of polystyrene, and what other products were available for use in the classroom.

The principal and staff allowed the students to present to the district. The district school board ultimately shot down their proposal due to the increase in costs of the recycled paper trays suggested as an earth friendly alternative. The next year this young man did not even try to get re-elected to the student council. He said that they don't listen to kids' good ideas anyway.

I don't like the feel or texture of styrofoam in my mouth so I've always brought along a mug for church. We have had a recent official proposal to invite anyone to bring mugs to cut down on the amount of styrofoam we are using every Sunday. Some of the bigger churches in the area use 1000 cups per Sunday morning. Each cup spends 500 years in a landfill.

So, in honor of Mother Earth, here is a little more information about polystyrene and a website you can check out for more recycling information.


Styrofoam is a trademark of the Dow company, but the material itself is called polystyrene. Like so many other plastics, it's all around us - very commonly used in packing material as peanuts or expanded foam, in food trays and a wide variety of other products - even explosives such as napalm and hydrogen bombs!

The bad news is (aside from its use in WMD); polystyrene is manufactured from petroleum. It's highly flammable, and a chemical called benzene, which is a known human carcinogen, is used in its production. Polystyrene foam, used commonly as padding in appliance packaging, takes an incredibly long time to break down in the environment and additionally, animals may ingest it which blocks their digestive tracts and ultimately causes starvation. This foam is also abundant in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Given the nature of polystyrene, it's surprising that such an energy intensive, oil sucking and toxic substance is allowed to be use as packaging for food; particularly for items such as meat where the food has direct contact with it. Nearly two dozen cities in the USA have banned the use of polystyrene for this purpose.

Packaging and products containing polystyrene can usually be identified by a recycling triangle logo with the number 6 inside it stamped on the item.

It's likely to be a very long time before the use of polystyrene is totally discontinued, and while we can try to buy products that don't utilize the stuff, we need to deal with the styrofoam that winds up in our hands instead of it heading straight to landfill.

Unfortunately many curbside recycling programs don't accept polystyrene and given its bulk, it can be difficult to store. Also, polystyrene is often recycled to be used in single use products; such as more packing material, so it's really important to get the word out about recycling this form of packaging.

A pound of polystyrene recycled is a pound of new polystyrene that doesn't have to be created. Currently in the USA expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam packaging is being recycled at a rate of approximately 10-12% each year.

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