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Blog/Opinion: Styrofoam: Mark of the Plastic Beast

Your Styrofoam lunch container of moo shu pork is labeled with the recycling number 6, a digit with evil connotations. Coincidence?


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Styrofoam is one of the most infamous environmental villains, to be sure.

This highly durable spawn of the 20th century, also known as polystyrene, is manufactured using benzene, from coal; styrene, from petroleum; and ethylene, a "blowing agent" used in the process since the crackdown on CFCs. Extracting these raw materials generates air and water pollution, and the process of whipping them together can lead to lung cancer and neurological problems in factory workers.

(When we hear about a health advantage of working in a factory, we'll let you know.)

As for you, chow time with Styrofoam could mean ingesting a bit of styrene with your rice. Research on whether polystyrene chemicals "migrate" from container to food is hotly debated, but it's a fact that styrene has been present in our fatty tissue and breast milk for the past 30 years. We might not be clear on what that means yet, but it can't be yummy for baby.

Like all plastics, polystyrene is non-biodegradable, meaning remnants of your Chinese takeout will be chilling on planet Earth long after your great-grandchildren and possibly Brangelina coverage are dead and gone. Even after a takeout container has dissolved 500 years from now, its chemical components will still clog the ecosystem. Polystyrene's bulky foreverness accounts for one-quarter of our landfill waste. While Styrofoam is recyclable, most curbside recycling programs don't support anything with the mark of the 6 due to the high cost associated with breaking them down.

As always, our glimmer-of-hope conclusion: EcoFoam, made from cornstarch, is 100 percent biodegradable and increasingly present in containers, packing peanuts, insulation and other traditionally Styrofoam products. And Blue Earth Solutions has an ambitious curbside pickup program called Foam from Home (they convert the stuff into a recyclable gel). Several cities in California have cast out the plastic devil altogether. Get thee gone, Styrofoam.




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Styrofoam: Mark of the Plastic Beast:  Created on February 2nd, 2012.  Last Modified on February 3rd, 2012

About Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi is the founding host/writer of Sundance Channel's environmental programming The Green and the creator of the Sundance Web series The Good Fight, highlighting global environmental justice efforts and grassroots activism. She is also an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where she teaches courses on sustainability and environmental communications. She is currently writing a book on psychological barriers to environmental engagement. Simran is the contributing author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, winner of the bronze 2008 Axiom Award for Best Business Ethics book.

Named one of the top ten eco-heroes of the planet by the UK’s Independent and lauded as the “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair, Simran has contributed numerous segments to Nightly News with Brian Williams, CNBC, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Today Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Martha Stewart Show and History Channel. She is committed to a redefinition of environmentalism that includes voices from the prairie, the inner city and the global community.

Simran blogs about sustainability and life cycle analysis for The Huffington Post and Alternet and is currently writing a year-long series about making her first home more resource efficient for Oprah Winfrey’s Web site She has been a featured guest on NPR and is the host of the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, “A School in the Woods.” She has lectured at institutions ranging from the Commonwealth Club to Cornell University; keynoted conferences including Bioneers by the Bay, the Green Business Conference and the North American Association For Environmental Education; and moderated panels for the Clinton Global Initiative University, Demos and the Climate Group.

Simran is an associate fellow at the Asia Society and serves on the Sustainability Advisory Board for the city of Lawrence, Kansas.  She holds an M.B.A. in sustainable business from the Presidio Graduate School and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Smith College.  She is the 2009 recipient of the Smith College Medal, awarded to alumnae demonstrating extraordinary professional achievements and outstanding service to their communities and the 2009 recipient of the University of Kansas award for Leadership in Sustainability.


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