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A Nation Choking On Styrofoam

Mar-21-2014 By Barbara Zak
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by Zeke Iddon

Styrofoam: The Pollutant People Forget About

It’s no surprise that our industrialized world has a problem with waste, but the scope of the issue can be mind-boggling to conceive. The U.S. alone is responsible for generating 200 billion tons of garbage every year, and an overwhelming amount of that is non-biodegradable waste that lingers in landfills or escapes into the world’s oceans. Plastic products are a major culprit, with Styrofoam leading the pack.

polystyrene pollination

An amazing 25 billion Styrofoam cups are thrown away each year in the U.S.; once you add in egg crates, packaging peanuts, take-out containers, meat trays and other products, the number of Styrofoam products in landfills climbs even more.

What exactly is Styrofoam?

Most people are familiar with Styrofoam, the most common brand name for polystyrene foam. This lightweight foam is made from long chains of hydrocarbons. These are obtained through the polymerization of petroleum, which converts the fossil fuel into foam. The end result is a lightweight product with a low melting point but excellent insulating qualities, which is why it’s so popular in food packaging.

Aside from the polystyrene products that are thrown away by consumers, the production of polystyrene generates a substantial amount of waste as well. Altogether, the process creates 57 different chemicals, including liquids and gases, and many of these byproducts can cause health concerns among those in direct contact with them.

The Polystyrene Menace

Aside from the chemical waste created by manufacturing Styrofoam, the greatest problem with polystyrene is that it lasts essentially forever. In 500 years, the discarded cups and take-out containers thrown out today will still be sitting in landfills, essentially unchanged. This is because the polymerized styrene is resistant to photolysis, or the natural breaking down of a substance subjected to protons from a light source. In other words, while some objects degrade in the sun, petroleum-based plastics and foams do not.

polystyrene pollination

Polystyrene is especially problematic because it’s lightweight. This increases its chances of blowing away from landfills or trash cans and finding its way into rivers, lakes and oceans. Once in the water, the polystyrene does indeed break down. In the process, it releases chemicals like bisphenol A into the water.

The Styrofoam itself also poses a threat to the environment. Marine wildlife often mistake plastic products for food, leading them to choke on bits of Styrofoam or die of starvation after obstructing their digestive tracts.

Taking Control of Waste

The risks of polystyrene production and disposal are becoming well-known, and many solutions have been offered to deal with the problem:

- An ingenious process perfected by the minds behind Poly2Petrol.com allows petroleum-based plastics, including polystyrene, to be broken down and converted back into oil. This oil can then be burned as fuel, reducing the overall demand for newly drilled oil while cutting down the amount of plastic waste. The project is still in its early stages, but as it catches on, this has the potentially to dramatically reduce the amount of petroleum waste entering the ecosystem.

- Some polystyrene products can be recycled. Recycling polystyrene is resource-intensive, however, and many community recycling initiatives are not equipped to handle these products. Only hard polystyrene, such as the kind used for packaging inserts, can be recycled. Any polystyrene that has been used to hold food cannot be recycled.

- Some polystyrene products can be reused. One example is packaging peanuts, which can generally be returned to a shipping company for additional uses. This is an imperfect solution as it can be inconvenient for the consumer, and it still does not solve the issue of food packaging and other polystyrene products, but it does offer slight relief to the overall problem.

- As more people become aware of the problems
caused by plastic waste, they’re demanding alternative packaging. This is great news for both landfills and the limited oil reserves throughout the world. New technologies are developing biodegradable food packaging, and more people are opting to buy in bulk or reduce waste by using reusable items instead of disposable ones.

Ultimately, the solution to the plastic waste problem will be a multi-pronged approach combining recycling, fresh technology and public awareness. Only by educating people on the dangers of Styrofoam and similar products can we hope to achieve relief from the choking presence of non-biodegradable waste in our landfills and oceans.

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A few generations ago, your grandmother had a wooden spoon that she used forever. You, on the other hand, use a cheap metal or plastic spoon that you probably will toss within a year. Modern society is filled with disposable items with a short shelf life. With so much waste surrounding us, it seems impossible to be green and repurpose used items. It’s easy, however, to be environmentally conscious. Recycle, upcycle and repair everyday things and transform them into something useful, again, with the following suggestions:


Photo by normanack via Flickr

When you and your children attend camps, conferences and special events, you probably bring home a T-shirt. You can take it to a charity shop when you are done wearing it, but chances are high that no one will buy it and it will end up in the landfill anyway. Instead, gather all those shirts and make yourself a charming quilt that will keep you warm for years and contain memorable stories.


Photo by Cayusa via Flickr

Even though it’s one of the scariest home repair jobs for the amateur to tackle, most plumbing can be easily done on your own. A leaky faucet can be fixed with a few tools and a couple of Apple Rubber o rings, while a toilet can be unclogged by detaching the toilet from the floor and grabbing the offending clog from the S-bend. If you have never tried your hand at these kinds of jobs but are interested in saving cash on plumbing bills, check out an instructional video on a site like YouTube. Best of all, when you fix the problem on your own without making a plumber drive out to your house, you save fossil fuels.


Photo by nashworld via Flickr

After a loved one has passed, the ecological thing to do is donate his or her clothes. But sometimes it’s too hard to let go. You don’t have to with a memory bear, which is made from articles of clothing, uniforms, fur coats, blankets or other items from a loved one. For example, Carrie Bears will make a 20-inch stuffed bear out of your loved one’s personal belongings or you can download a template and make your own, which is a heartwarming way to hold onto and upcycle the memories of a special person.

Home Decor

Photo by SOCIALisBETTER via Flickr

Home decorating is not an inexpensive hobby but when you introduce upcycling as part of it, it becomes greener and more affordable. Most home decorations go out of style and end up in the landfill after a few years so you may as well make your decorations with objects that are headed that direction. There are countless books to get your ideas flowing. Upcycling Celebrations by Danny Seo focuses on holiday decorations and Upcycle That is a fabulous blog with detailed instructions on all kinds of green projects, ranging from decorative egg carton flower lights to cork planters and crate coffee tables.

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The world hasn’t gone to hell in a handbag yet, but scary statistics about pollution and climate change do need to be taken seriously. According to Cleanair.org, each year Americans throw away enough paper and plastic products to wrap around the equator three times, and the oil from one oil change is enough to contaminate a million gallons of fresh water. Paying attention to details and making small changes in our daily lives can make a sizable impact over time.

Recycle Your Cellphone

Your electronic gadgets are pricey because many require precious metals like gold, silver and palladium to work. These precious metals require huge, energy-sucking, toxic mining operations to be extracted, and the outcome isn’t pretty. Gold mines have been equated to nuclear waste dumps in terms of environmental damage, and they’re largely unnecessary. There are 100 to 130 million cellphones carelessly tossed away each year; the amount of wasted precious metals from them equates to more than some gold producing nations. Do the world a huge favor and recycle your out-of-date cellphone.

Cellphone Taken Apart

Photo by MikeFinkelstein via Flickr

Outsource Printing and Scanning

A report by an Australian air researcher revealed that the particulates from many household printers and scanners may be as dangerous as cigarette smoke. Even limited exposure can lodge in the lungs and cause anything from irritation to cancer. The lasers present in some scanners can pose radiation threats and expose you to harmful ultraviolet light. These products require many of the same precious, toxically-mined metals as your cell phone. As technology expands, there is much less need for printers, so a quick run to Kinkos beats buying and breathing printer ink. When it comes to your scanning needs, it’s easier and less expensive to outsource. Let the professionals scan your documents, photos and slides to digital.

Professional Printer

Photo by tawalker via Flickr

Cold Water for Your Clothes

Your clothes do not need to be washed in hot water. This is one of the easiest ways you can possibly go green. With the literal turn of a dial you can conserve wads of energy each year. Product-giant Procter and Gamble authorities remarked that if every American used cold water in washing machines, enough energy would be saved to light 2.5 million homes for an entire year. Go cold; your pink laundry won’t care.

Pink Laundry in a Washer

Photo by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr

Ditch Bad Bottle Habits

You’ve heard it before, yet plastic bottle sales are still going strong. Stop using disposable plastic bottles. Stop today. National Geographic reports that we use 7 billion gallons of bottled water every year; many of them contribute to the destruction of the ocean and soil. What you don’t probably know is that over 1 million barrels of oil is required to produce the “convenient” little bottles, enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a whole year. Instead of contributing to this industry, use a water filter or simply buy huge bottles that last a very long time.

Water Bottles

Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Flickr

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