Business Community - Polystyrene
The ubiquitous polystyrene coffee cup epitomizes the battle between technology and convenience on the one hand, and sustainability, environmental responsibility and human health on the other.
Polystyrene is a polymer made from the compound styrene, which is a petroleum product. Polystyrene foam cups and food containers are inexpensive to manufacture and transport, relatively effective at keeping food hot (or cold), and lightweight.
But the environmental impacts of polystyrene foam are significant: discarded polystyrene foam cups and food containers never break down and stay in the environment forever. Some become part of the waste stream headed for incinerators, where burning emits toxic chemicals. Others wind up in streams, lakes, rivers or oceans. A polystyrene container may eventually disintegrate into tiny pieces, but it will never become actual food for bacteria or fungi, our environmental decomposers.
The potential human health impacts are also of concern. Styrene is considered a possible human carcinogen by the EPA, and many studies have associated exposure to styrene with reproductive problems and cancer. Research shows that styrene can readily leach from containers into food, such as from cups into hot liquids and alcohol.
Who's Doing It Right
Several cities, including San Francisco, have banned polystyrene and other non-recycleable food containers entirely.
Californians Against Waste (CAW) has a section of their extensive web site dedicated to local initiatives to ban polystyrene, and a nice online brochure about unrecyclable takeout food containers.
Groundwell Stories has a web page showing all of the cities and towns in the US that have banned polystyrene.