A recently released study compared the life-cycle inventory and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of polystyrene (PS), paperboard, and corn-based (polylactic: PLA) cups, plates and sandwich containers. The study found that PS containers use “significantly less energy and water” since PS weighs less. However, the GHG emissions of PS containers are “slightly more” than PLA products. If paperboard products do not degrade after being thrown away, they store carbon and generate fewer emissions than PS products, but if they do degrade they generate more emissions.
In case you need a reason to suspect the study please note it was prepared for the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council. Although it is interesting to note the life-cycle inventories of PS, paperboard and PLA, the study does not mention the environmental and health impacts of PS.
PS is petroleum based made from styrene, commonly known as Styrofoam. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies polystyrene as a possible human carcinogen. According to Earth Resource Foundation, polystyrene can cause “irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal effects.” In addition, chronic exposure to polystyrene “affects the central nervous system showing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, and weakness, and can cause minor effects on kidney function and blood.” Unfortunately, toxic chemicals leach out of PS foam products into the food contained in them.
Earth Resource Foundation mentioned that a 1986 EPA report on solid waste rated the PS manufacturing process as the fifth biggest generator of hazardous waste. Earth Resource Foundation also mentioned that the National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of PS.
Hydrocarbons used in PS manufacturing release hydrocarbons into the air which combine with nitrogen oxides and form the air pollutant, tropospheric ozone. Many Americans, especially those residing in California (which contains the two worst air basins in the country) suffer from respiratory diseases such as asthma because of ozone pollution.
The Environmental Justice Network (EJN) states on its website that PS “promotes the throw away consumer ethic.” EJN suggests that “more permanent, less polluting, reusable alternatives are available for almost all of its current applications, but industry chooses to ignore these options.”
Oregon and California cities ban PS food containers
Portland, Oregon banned the use of PS food containers in 1990. A number of California cities also have PS food container bans including Alameda, Berkeley, Calabasas, Carmel, Emeryville, Fairfax, Hercules, Laguna Beach, Malibu, Marin, Monterey, Newport Beach, Oakland, Palo Alto, Richmond, San Bruno, San Francisco and Santa Cruz.
In September 2010, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to ban the use of PS food containers at the majority of county buildings and concessions, according to an article by the Los Angeles Times. The Board ordered the Department of Public Works and the county counsel’s office to report to the Board in a year on how feasible it will be ban PS foam food containers in unincorporated areas.