I have pretty much trained myself to carry my beloved ceramic travel mug with me for the times when the desire for a latte is too strong to ignore, but I still periodically succumb to the 7:00 pm, there is no food in the fridge, let’s get Thai take-out. Much to my chagrin I usually fail to follow through on my best intentions to bring some sort of container from home to transport those yummy Phad Thai noodles, which means they often end up in some sort of styrofoam container.
There may be help on the way!
A bill (SB 568) passed the California state Senate on Thursday which would prevent food vendors and restaurants from using containers made with polystyrene foam (commonly known as Styrofoam).
So what are the repercussions of using these containers anyway?
Polystyrene foam is made from petroleum, a non-sustainable resource. It’s manufacture is heavily polluting. It uses benzene, a carcinogenic chemical in its production. It’s main building block is styrene, a suspected neurotoxin and a substance which is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA. According to the Earth Resource Institute when we use it to contain our food, toxic chemicals leach into the food. After its one time use, it is either thrown away, or possibly recycled. Styrofoam advocates tout this ability to be recycled as one of its great attributes, but the truth is that most styrofoam simply does not get recycled. The market for used styrofoam is very small mostly because its large volume per unit of weight makes it cost prohibitive to recycle. This is especially true if it has been used for food packaging, which requires the added cost of cleaning in order to be recycled. Here in Santa Barbara, recycling centers do not take styrofoam food containers. So if it is not recycled it is thrown away. It either ends up in a landfill, or it becomes urban litter and marine debris.
Polystyrene comprises 15% of storm drain litter according to the CA Dept of Transportation and according to a study by So.CAl Coastal Water Quality research Project it is the 2nd most common type of beach debris. Animals are commonly killed from choking on it or having their digestive tracks clogged after ingesting styrofoam. Here is the big catch, Polystyrene foam does not biodegrade. It can last thousands of years, if not longer, and we make a lot of it. Approximately 166,135 tons were produced and sold in one year in California for packaging and food service according to the Ca Integrated Waste Management Board. While styrofoam does not biodegrade, it does break down. The smallest of these pieces are called styrene monomers. Research has indicated that styrene monomers are carcinogenic to mice. Styrene monomers seem to be widespread in the worlds oceans. Samples of ocean water taken in the Pacific by Nihon University contained styrene monomers along with other products of Styrofoam breakdown. According to researchers from the University of California in Santa Cruz, styrofoam can pose a threat to marine life even at the molecular level.
Seems like it is high time to get rid of it.
The California bill is headed to the assembly this month with a floor vote by the end of August. Let’s hope it does not go the way of the California plastic bag bill which had passed the assembly in 2010 and had the support of then Governor Schwarzenegger but ended up failing after heavy industry lobbying. It might be helpful to let your representative know of your support for this bill before the final vote.