What’s Wrong With Styrofoam?

What’s Wrong With Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is the common name for a type of plastic called expanded polystyrene foam that is used to manufacture everyday items such as coffee cups, coolers, food containers, and shipping materials. In fact, Styrofoam is the trade name only for a specific type of insulating foam produced by the Dow Chemical Company, so much of what is referred to as Styrofoam is actually a generic polystyrene foam. These foams are valued for their high insulation capacity and buoyancy, but they also have numerous, well-documented negative effects on human health and the environment.

Chemicals Hazards

Polystyrene foams are made from styrene, a derivative of the chemical benzene, that is fused into long chains and then expanded using heat and steam. There is no benzene in finished polystyrene foams, but the workers who manufacture them are at risk for benzene exposure. The detrimental health effects of benzene are well-known and severe: even short-term exposure to benzene vapors can lead to dizziness, disorientation, or unconsciousness. Long-term exposure can cause anemia, excessive bleeding, and depression of the immune system. Benzene is also a known cause of several types of cancer, including leukemia.

There is less consensus on the health effects of styrene. Short-term exposure is irritating to the gastrointestinal tract and eyes; long-term exposure causes headaches, fatigue, hearing loss, and weakness. It is currently classified by the National Toxicological Program’s 12th Report on Carcinogens as reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen. Again, workers involved in the manufacture of polystyrene foams are at the most risk of styrene exposure. There have been studies that suggest styrene can migrate from packaging into food, but the evidence on the extent of the migration is inconclusive.


Benzene is derived from petroleum, so the use of polystyrene foam products contributes to the sizable negative impact of oil acquisition and processing.

Ozone Impact

Historically, polystyrene foams were made using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the expanding agent. This practice was discontinued in the 1980s after the discovery of CFCs’ destructive effect on the ozone layer. Polystyrene foams are now manufactured using hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). HCFCs have 1-10% of the ozone depletion potential of CFCs, so while less destructive they are still actively depleting the ozone layer.


Polystyrene foams account for .25% of garbage in the U.S. by weight, but it is estimated that they occupy as much as 30% of landfill space. They are non-biodegradable, which means that once discarded they will remain in overcrowded landfills indefinitely. As of 2006, the U.S. was discarding over 14 million tons of polystyrene products annually.


Polystyrene is recyclable (plastics made from it will be marked #6), and polystyrene foams can be recycled into new packing materials or other plastic products such as coat hangers and cd jewel cases. However, the volume of polystyrene foam makes it difficult to collect and transport, which hampers curbside collection. Recycling availability varies by location. Polystyrene foams are not accepted at most recycling centers, but the Alliance of Foam Packing Recyclers operates numerous drop-off locations throughout the U.S. as well as a mail-back recycling program, and the Plastic Loose Fill Council operates drop-off sites and a hotline for recycling of loose packing peanuts.


The easiest way to reduce polystyrene foam waste is to replace disposable products such as cups, coolers, and lunch tray with reusable items. If disposable products are needed, there are numerous paper as well as corn- and sugar-based alternatives that are recyclable and/or biodegradable

Bans on Polystyrene Foam

Several cities, including Los Angeles and Portland, OR, have enacted bans on the use of polystyrene foams for prepared food. Efforts to enact a statewide ban in California were shelved in late 2011, but legislators say it will be reexamined sometime in 2012.

This article was written for Green Home by Rachel Tardif

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