Volume 12, Issue 30 ~ July 22-28, 2004
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Got an Envionmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: www.emagazine.com. Or e-mail us at: [email protected].
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Styrofoam Becomes You
How can I convince coworkers to switch from Styrofoam cups to reusable mugs?
—Jennifer Quintana, Miami, FL

The best you can do is give ’em the facts: Styrofoam, Dow Chemical’s trade name for its blown foam polystyrene product, gained widespread popularity in the 1970s as an inexpensive and effective insulating material for disposable cups and containers. Polystyrene became ubiquitous throughout our on-the-go society, holding everything from coffee to fast-food hamburgers and functioning as insulation in product packaging.

Initially, Styrofoam manufacturing required the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, to blow the styrene into its final hard foam form. Today, following the CFC ban that came with the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depletion in 1989, Dow instead uses carbon dioxide and pentane as blowing agents. That switch may be sparing the ozone layer, but pentane is a highly flammable chemical that contributes to smog, so the industry has essentially traded one evil for another.

Another problem with Styrofoam is that it does not biodegrade well and can leak toxins into the groundwater under our overstuffed landfills. Additionally, millions of tons of polystyrene get incinerated and end up as airborne toxic ash.

But just in case water contamination and clouds of toxic ash are not valid enough reasons to convince co-workers to switch to reusable mugs, then maybe the potential health effects of Styrofoam will have an impact. As early as 1972, researchers identified potentially toxic styrene residues in a majority of Americans sampled. By 1986, styrene was found in 100 percent of all samples of human fat tissue taken as part of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Human Tissue Survey. Researchers found that Styrofoam cups lose weight when in use, meaning that styrene is oozing into the foods and drinks we consume. It then ends up stored in our fatty tissue, where it can build up to levels that can cause fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping, blood abnormalities — and even carcinogenic effects.

Strangely enough, it was Ronald McDonald himself who woke up millions of Americans to the environmental and health impacts of polystyrene. After many years of pressure from advocacy groups including the Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (now called the Center for Health, Environment and Justice) and Environmental Defense, McDonald’s phased out Styrofoam packaging for its hamburgers in 1989 in favor of the paperboard containers we are so familiar with today.

Yet McDonald’s decision was voluntary, and still today polystyrene does not appear to be on the Food and Drug Administration radar screen as a potential contaminant. Without any regulation on the production and sale of polystyrene products, the only way to stave off its negative environmental and health impacts is to act locally, one office cubicle at a time.

For more information:
• Dow Chemical: 800-441-4DOW; www.dow.com.
• Center for Health, Environment and Justice: 703-237-2249; www.chej.org.
• Environmental Defense: 212-505-2100; www.environmentaldefense.org.
• The Polystyrene Page: www.ejnet.org/plastics/polystyrene.

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