Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What's the big deal with styrofoam?


Styrofoam is a trademarked product of the Dow Jones Chemical company. It is a cost-effective product that is used in many way- food containers, cup, packaging, insulation, etc. Using Styrofoam cuts costs because of weight. Comprised of 95% air, it retains heat well and protects damageable products easily.

So what is the big deal?
Labeled as a number 6 plastic, Styrofoam makes up about 30% of all plastic that goes into our waste stream. Although it looks harmless, Styrofoam is made from petroleum-based plastic called styrene which can affect the environment in many ways.

Health
Human workers handling styrene are likely to develop acute health effects including irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic exposure can affect our central nervous system showing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, and weakness, and can cause minor effects on kidney function and blood. Styrene has also been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Chemicals from Styrofoam seep into the products they contain, like the food we eat.

Environment
Styrofoam is the 5th largest source of waste. Being made from the fossil fuels, the petroleum is a non-renewable resource and  pollutant. When hydrocarbons are released into the air by the product, they combine with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight forming a tropospheric ozone- ground level air pollution.

From its uses, Styrofoam has a tendency to be disposed at litter cause many animals to consume and even choke on the product. This includes animals that we then consume! Not only on land, but styrofoam is an enormous contributor to the ten million tons of plastic floating in  "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

Disposal
Styrofoam is one of the hardest materials to recycle. When searching through Earth911, the nearest styrofoam recycling facility to UIC is 20 miles away in Thorton, IL.  Most municipal recycling programs do not recycle it because it is virtually weightless which makes it worthless as scrap. The same lightweight property of the material makes collecting it difficult, because even light winds can send it blowing great distances. Also, when using it for food purposes, it results in dirty materials that are even harder to recycle.

One recycling Website stated:
Another little known solution is spraying your Styrofoam with an organic citrus peel extract called limonene. This actually shrinks your pile of Styrofoam to about 1/20th of of its original size!
The resulting gooey substance can be used as super glue. Limonene is found in some products now available in the market. Want to stock some in your cupboard? Go to GreenTerpene.
For consumers in some countries mail back is another option. In the absence of any drop off points in your vicinity there are programs instituted by the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers who accept polystyrene by mail. The only expenses are the box some effort in packing and the postage.
Thoughts
Styrofoam is used by many organizations and companies because of it's convenience and low-cost. Some even believe that because of it's easy production it produces less emissions than similarly used products made from paper or other materials. Although this is likely true, styrofoam's externalized effects on the environment and our health greatly outweight the cost of using alternative materials- especially materials made eco-friendly!

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