The Problem with FOAM

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 7.51.33 PMIf your favorite java joint is serving your most treasured beverage in Styrofoam – you may want to bring your own cup. In fact, whether you are buying those 50 count packages of disposable Styrofoam cups from the dollar store or regularly getting take-out delivered in polystyrene – keep reading.

I will refer to what we commonly call “Styrofoam” as polystyrene Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 7.00.19 PMfrom this point forward. The terms are interchanged but the actual material used for food and drink containers is polystyrene or #6 plastic. Polystyrene is comprised of lightweight styrene (considered a possible human carcinogen) and benzene (a known human carcinogen) according to the EPA.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 6.55.17 PMThe thing that you don’t want to do with most chemicals is heat them up, which is what happens every time you pour a hot beverage or heat/serve heated food in a polystyrene cup or container. Every cup or container is said to leach “safe” amounts of chemical per use, but that is not considering the accumulative load. What about the college student’s 300th bowl of microwaved cup-o-noodles? – or your Dad’s daily coffee fix at the Dunkin’ Donuts? And if it’s dangerous to the user’s health, just consider those workers who are regularly exposed to styrene during the manufacturing process, which include products containing rubber, plastics and resins. The polystyrene manufacturing process is the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste according to the EPA and The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.

“Trace amounts of styrene as well as various chemical additives in polystyrene migrate into food, which increases significantly in hot liquids.” – Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 6.47.07 PMOver five years ago, Dunkin’ Donuts announced to the world that they were phasing out the polystyrene cup which has become synonymous with their brand. Dunkin’ Brands CEO Nigel Travis said in its 2012 corporate social responsibility report that it hoped to roll out a more sustainable cup in two to three years.

What happened? The same argument that the restaurant and polystyrene representatives use in nearly every city council hearing that is proposing a ban – money. Like any industry that is involuntarily affected by legislation that hurts their bottom line, they claim egregious financial harm. In regions where Styrofoam is banned, Dunkin’ Donuts has used a polypropylene (highly recyclable) cup with a polystyrene lid. Two problems: The lids are still not recyclable and the recyclable polypropylene cup costs much more. Case in point, in 2015 New York City passed a ban on foam food containers and Dunkin’ Donuts used it as a marketing opportunity to pronounce their concern for the environment by “phasing out Styrofoam”.  But shortly after the ban went into effect, the City Commissioner of Sanitation’s suit was overturned by NY State Supreme Court, under pressure from the restaurant and foam industry(s). Dunkin’ Donuts immediately switched back to its foam cups. After all, if their business is not hurt by an environmentally irresponsible cup, why should they adjust?

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 10.59.26 PMI testified at the New York City Council hearing for the foam ban. Most arguments to support any ban of this kind; foam, plastic bags, pesticides…are environmental. Polystyrene is a scourge to the environment. It is a petroleum based product, making it unsustainable, and takes over 500 years to decompose when buried. Plastics, including polystyrene, currently represent 30% of landfill material – and I believe that to be a conservative estimate. Burning polystyrene is a terrible idea because it releases toxic carbon monoxide into the air.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 9.59.03 PMBut the larger argument, ironically, surrounds the very quality that makes polystyrene so cheap and effective – weight. Since foam is so light, it floats, gets blown around, and breaks into tiny pieces contaminating our waterways and oceans. Fish, seabirds and sea mammals mistake it for food – or it joins one of the multiple churning, mostly plastic gyres contributing to marine pollution globally.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 7.35.23 PMI argued the health hazard to eating and drinking from polystyrene at the City Council hearing. Many in my camp had been working for nearly a decade to rid NYC Public School cafeterias of polystyrene trays. We hoped that a city ban would signal a widespread phase-out of polystyrene trays in NYC school cafeterias. A handful of schools fundraised to cover the extra cost to replace the foam trays with pulp trays – a commitment and sacrifice insuring that students would not be needlessly exposed to toxins simply by taking a hot lunch and the environment would not be further denigrated. 2015 was a banner year in that NYC, as well as LA, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando public schools, eliminated school food foam trays and replaced them with compostable trays and plates. The happy outcome is that for New York City schools alone, this switch has accounted for 360,000 eliminated foam trays from landfills. Daily!

SierraClubWhen the foam industry says that polystyrene is recyclable, they are obfuscating. Technically, it is recyclable, but there are very few facilities with the capability to do so. In addition, the foam must be clean, so food containers are not candidates for recycling. So far, San Diego is the only municipality that (as of June ’17) includes expanded foam with their curbside recycling pick-up. We’ll see how that goes. The Sierra Club is one of many environmental groups urging NYC to reject a recent restaurant industry-inspired bill (Intro 1480) to facilitate curbside recycling of single-use foam food and beverage containers calling for an outright ban instead, sighting the fact that no big city in America has successfully implemented a recycling program for dirty polystyrene foam food and beverage containers.

Expanded polystyrene (“EPS”) foam containers, due to their light weight and brittle composition, create a significant litter clean-up problem for the Sanitation Department and city property owners, burden city recycling operations and pollute our waterways and our communities. Intro 1480 runs counter to recent New York City efforts to truly rid our communities of unnecessary waste.       – The Sierra Club

Waste management in San Jose, CA made a stab at recycling foam but concluded that “There are no effective and efficient ways to recycle EPS (foam). This is due to the low market value of the material and high rate of food contamination.”  New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia has re-evaluated the foam recycling issue since the court overruled the 2015 ban, and she has once again concluded that recycling dirty foam cannot be accomplished in a way that makes economic or environmnental sense. She has the support of 55 groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Food and Water Watch, The Sierra Club, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.

What You Can Do


Joco Glass Reusable Cups

Joco Glass Reusable Cups

Take a reusable cup with you for any establishment serving beverages in foam. This is a good habit to be in regardless because it is rare to find in-store recycling options for coffee cups no matter what the material.

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Just say NO to polystyrene! No matter where it is offered. If your favorite take-out place offers only foam containers, let them know that you love their food but you are willing to move on until they re-think their food container material. But be sure to LET THEM KNOW! A silent boycott is not feedback.

At the meat/fish counter, request that your purchase be wrapped only in paper and skip the foam tray so common in many stores. Or better yet, bring your own reusable container. Once the protein is weighed, they can pop it in your personal carrier for transport.

Pick up any polystyrene refuse that you my find and secure it to a trash receptacle. Until it’s banned, we must do better in keeping it out of our waterways.



Take any packing material to a shipping center or UPS facility for re-use. They are generally happy to take it – especially if its loose peanuts. For larger, block polystyrene, usually used for packing appliances and furniture, look for a facility near you that may repurpose it for building materials.



Find out if there is a polystyrene recycling facility near you by visiting Earth911. When using the earth911 “Where to Recycle” tool, enter #6 Plastic – Expanded. Any facility that will accept expanded foam will note if zip code residency is required. In most cases, it is.

You can also find foam information and recycling facilities at Foam Facts.


About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have.

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