The average American comes in contact with polystyrene foam containers nearly every day in the form of food take-out containers and lunch trays, but there are many misconceptions about foam’s effect on the environment and the recycling opportunities it offers Oregon. It is widely documented that foam containers are far less expensive than compostable and paper alternatives, and industry insiders seek to educate Oregonians about the other, more environmental benefits that foam presents.
It’s important to note that polystyrene foam is often mistakenly referred to as Styrofoam, but they are distinctly different. Styrofoam is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company that is used for insulation, while polystyrene foam is used almost exclusively in food packaging products.
Many people mistakenly believe that polystyrene foam is not recyclable. In fact, it’s 100% recyclable, and there are dozens of recycling centers across the country. Recycled foam is reused in picture frames, garden nursery trays, rulers, and architectural molding. Furthermore, when foam is cleaned, ground down, and heated, manufacturers can use it for insulation and as a component of solar paneling and windmill blades.
According to an October 2014 report from the EPS Industry Alliance, the recycling rate of polystyrene foam climbed to 35% in 2013. This rate is up nearly 5% year-over-year, and has steadily climbed since 1991. As more people learn about the benefits of foam recycling, the rate can only continue to climb.
Often, people believe that polystyrene is made with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or other ozone-depleting chemicals. The truth: CFCs have not been used since 1980, and Dart Container has never used them in molded foam products.[i] Foam products are made when air and polystyrene encounter a “blowing” or “expansion” agent. Similarly, no regulatory body has ever classified styrene – the monomer that polystyrene is made from – as a human carcinogen.
Another misconception is that foam products are filling up landfills across America. In fact, foam foodservice products make up less than 1% of landfill waste (by both weight and volume). Many more paper cups end up in landfills than their foam counterparts.[ii]
Foam critics often recommend compostable products as a more environmentally friendly option. However, compostable products must go to an industrial composting facility to decompose properly, as landfills are designed to discourage moisture, sunlight, and oxygen – the crucial decomposition elements. When compostable products end up in landfills, their improper biodegradation can lead to a release of methane gas and leachate, which contaminate groundwater. It is also important to note that all paper food products are not biodegradable. Often, paper cups are coated in plastic in order to retain liquid.
The foam industry is taking its case for foam recycling to the people of Oregon. Knowing the state’s penchant for attracting nature lovers and environmental activists, the industry is optimistic that its recycling message will resonate with citizens across the Beaver State. The foam industry hopes that its efforts to correct misconceptions about foam will serve to ameliorate the reputation of this useful material throughout Oregon.
[i] Alexander, Judd H. In Defense of Garbage. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993. 55.
[ii] United States Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste in the United States 2010 Facts and Figures, November 2011, Table 3