Polystyrene is a type of plastic manufactured from non-renewable fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals into two main forms:
- Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, which is typically used for cheap, disposable foodware (cups, plates, ‘clamshells’, etc.) and for packaging to protect goods during shipment.
- Rigid polystyrene, which is often used for a variety of things including disposable cutlery, plastic models, CD and DVD cases, and smoke detector housings.
Don't Call it Styrofoam TM
Styrofoam™ is a registered trademark of DuPont (formerly Dow Chemical Company)84 used for building insulation materials made from “extruded polystyrene” (XPS). Foodware (cups, plates, trays, etc.), which is made from EPS, is often mistakenly referred to as the brand name Styrofoam™. Dupont has spent a great deal of money keeping tabs on the high-profile misuses of the term and sending cease-and-desist letters. Keep this in mind when advocating for bans of EPS foodware and consider simply calling it foam foodware.
Marine Life Impacts
EPS foam foodware is very cheap to manufacture and cheap to buy for restaurants, but can wreak havoc on the marine environment:
- EPS foam does not biodegrade in our lifetimes. It may photodegrade and/or break into small pieces if littered, which are harder to clean up.
- EPS products are composed of about 95% air and are easily blown out of trash cans and into the environment.
- EPS foam is typically made from non-renewable fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals that may leach out over time, especially if in contact with hot, greasy or acidic food. The manufacturing of polystyrene creates large amounts of greenhouse gases, as well as liquid and solid waste.
- Animals can mistake EPS foam for food or nesting materials.
- Although inexpensive to buy, EPS can be expensive to clean up. Since they are so inexpensive, polystyrene products are often thrown away or littered after a single use. Many municipalities that have to comply with storm water regulations limiting trash in waterways have already spent substantial taxpayer dollars trying to control, capture, and remove trash, including EPS.
- EPS recycling is often not economical, so most of it gets landfilled or littered. Also, food residue contamination often ruins the EPS foodware recycling stream. This form of plastic pollution should be addressed at the source instead of relying on more trashcans and ‘end of the pipe’ solutions of capturing and removing litter.
- The 'Two Rivers' study in Los Angeles found that over 1.6 billion pieces of plastic foam were headed to the ocean over a three-day period during surveys in 2004/5. 71% of 2.3 billion plastic items in the survey were foam items and that made up 11% of the overall weight of plastic pollution collected during the surveys. 
- And there is concern regarding human health impacts. According to the U.S. Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program, the styrene monomer (the building block for polystyrene) is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.
What can be done to help solve the problem of plastic foodware litter and pollution?
- Shifting to sustainable options by restaurants and businesses. Bans and other legislative actions could potentially be avoided by embracing extended producer responsibility and trying to reduce disposable items. If customers are eating/drinking in a restaurant, offer them plates, glasses and mugs that are washed rather than thrown away. If customers order out, offer them incentives for reusable mugs, bags, etc. if possible. Many Surfrider Foundation chapters have an Ocean Friendly Restaurants program to incentivize elimination of EPS foam foodware because it is a top item found at beach cleanups.
- Local, regional or statewide bans on polystyrene. The most common product addressed by EPS ban is foam foodware (cups, plates, trays, etc.), while a few also banned solid polystyrene foodware. Other cities that have banned EPS include San Diego, Miami Beach, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Manhattan Beach takes the ban on polystyrene foodware a step further by banning all polystyrene, including EPS and rigid polystyrene. Another example is San Francisco, where the ordinance goes beyond the traditional EPS foodban and regulates EPS products such as packing materials, coolers and ice chests, and pool or beach toys.
Check out this video from pro surfer Torrey Meister and Surfrider Foundation.
And also watch the following video, narrated by 6-year-old Jack from Corpus Christi, Texas.
What are the alternatives to EPS foam and other disposable plastic foodware?
- Utilize reusable items (durable plates, cups, utensils) whenever possible.
- If reusable items are not practical, investigate disposable items that are more sustainable. A variety of options exist at prices that are getting competitive with polystyrene. Check out the Ocean Friendly Foodware Guide for more information.
- R.W. Sarsby. 2007. Geosynthetics in Civil Engineering. Woodhead Publishing.
- J.G.B. Derraik, “The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review” Marine Pollution Bulletin 44 (2002)
- C.J. Moore, G.L. Lattin and A.F. Zellers. Journal of Integrated Coastal Zone Management 11(1):65-73 (2011)