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.
- Solid polystyrene, which is often used for a variety of things including disposable cutlery, plastic models, CD and DVD cases, and smoke detector housings.
- Styrofoam (TM). The word styrofoam is often used to describe expanded polystyrene foam products; however, ‘Styrofoam’ is actually a trademarked term owned by The Dow Chemical Company for closed-cell extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam made for thermal insulation and craft applications. EPS foam is currently the correct term for any foam takeout ware or other expanded polystyrene foam products not manufactured by Dow.
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 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.
- 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. Very few communities have access to polystyrene recycling. 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. One positive effort in EPS recycling is the Waste to Waves project of Sustainable Surf. The goal of this project is to collect clean, white EPS used for packaging in computers, TVs, appliances and furniture and recycle this EPS into surfboard blanks.
- 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. 
What can be done to help solve the problem of plastic foodware litter and pollution?
- Restaurant and business responsibility. 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.
- Local, regional or statewide bans on polystyrene. There are currently over 60 local ordinances. Most of those ordinances banned EPS foam foodware while a few also banned solid polystyrene foodware. Some places are also looking into banning foam coolers and other items because of their environmental impacts.
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 compostable or easier to recycle. A variety of options exist at prices that are getting competitive with polystyrene. There are issues with any single-use/disposable product so do your research and decide what works for you.
Expanded foam takeout ware not only negatively affects the environment and wildlife but also human health. Styrene residues are found in 100% of all samples of human fat tissue from exposure through food and packaging. Styrene has been classified as an anticipated human carcinogen and a neurotoxin.
- 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)