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The styrony of it all

December 3, 2012
Styrofoam Containers

Image courtesy of winnond / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I admit it. I regularly forget to bring my reusable bags to the grocery store.

I’ve tried lots of ways to remember – from keeping them in my car, to making myself buy new ones when I forget them, to carrying things home without a bag. But even these inconveniences haven’t worked. I think it’s the same gene that results in my systematically forgetting to close cupboard doors.

Anyway…. I was in the grocery store the other day, and once again I had forgotten to bring my bags.

As I admitted my sin to the cashier, the person in line behind me gave me that look – you know the one: “I’m greener than you are.” She had brought her bags.

I shuffled my stuff into a plastic bag, trying to rationalize to myself once again how I would reuse it, and how I would remember to bring my own next time. That’s when I noticed it: the person behind me was buying four or five different packages of meat, all super-wrapped with polystyrene (commonly known as styrofoam) trays.

It got me thinking about the irony, or in the case the “styrony” of the situation: too often, we tout ourselves as being sustainable because we do one highly visible action, ignoring many bigger issues that contribute to the impact that we have. (By the way, an easy way to reduce styrofoam from the grocery store is to get your fish or meat from the butcher counter in the store where it is typically paper wrapped.)

So What’s So Bad About Polystyrene?

  1. Possibly Cancer Causing: Let’s start with the health issues. In 2011, styrene, one of the chemicals in polystyrene was added to a list of possible carcinogens by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Additional health concerns have been identified, particularly for workers involved in the production of polystyrene.
  2. It’s Bad for the Environment: According to the University of British Columbia’s Risk Management Services “Styrofoam is harmful to the environment both in disposal and in the chemicals and processes used to create it. Styrofoam takes over 500 years to degrade in normal landfills, and has been piling up for years to make up nearly 30% of garbage by volume found in landfills today. Along with filling up our landfills, when Styrofoam is burned over 90 different hazardous chemicals are released into the environment.” In addition, polystyrene is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.
  3. It’s the Major Contributor to Ocean Garbage: A 2011 study from British Columbia estimated that “there are 36,000 pieces of ‘synthetic marine debris’ -garbage the size of fists to fridges -floating around the coastline, from remote inland fiords to 150 kilometres offshore. Of that, 49 per cent is Styrofoam or similar polystyrene products…”

Recommendations for Eliminating Polystyrene (and Styrony) at Events

Before you pour your next cup of organic, fair trade coffee into a polystyrene cup, or ship your eco-friendly awards in boxes packed in polystyrene peanuts, consider a few modifications:

  1. Provide alternatives for styrofoam cups: My preference is for reusable containers. There are corn based options as well, but the verdict is out on their environmental benefits, with at least one study finding that the greenhouse gas emissions for corn-based alternatives being higher than polystyrene.Encourage your participants to bring their own mugs. You could even turn it into a donation drive, where people bring their mismatched mugs to use at your event, and afterwards they’ll be washed and donated to a community group.
  2. Implement a policy: Make it a policy for your company to not use polystyrene, and include this as part of your RFPs. As an example, if you are hiring outside vendors for your events, such as for concession stands, implement a “polystyrene-free policy”. Some communities, many of which are in California, have already banned the use of polystyrene.
  3. Wield our collective sword of influence: On a recent flight, I was shocked by the bags of garbage collecting at the back of the airplane filled with polystyrene cups. While I appreciate that polystyrene cups are lighter and more affordable than paper, I’d be thrilled to pay an extra few pennies on my next flight to keep it polystyrene free. I say we start an online campaign for the major airlines to pledge to be polystyrene free by Earth Day.
  4. Reduce your need for packing materials: A major use of polystyrene at events is for packing materials. If possible, avoid the use of fragile items as give-aways at events, reducing the demand for polystyrene. If you need packing materials, consider alternatives such as crumpled newsprint instead of polystyrene peanuts.
  5. Don’t count on recycling: Although technically polystyrene can be recycled, facilities that process the material are hard to find and the recycling process itself is very resource intensive. Instead, eliminate the use of the product.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2012 4:12 pm

    Where do I sign up for the airline pledge?! I’ve starting bringing my reusable cup on board, but it’s obviously larger than the small ‘styrene cups, so I find I often get glares as if I’m trying to get a “Venti” for the price of a “Short”. Another idea to add to your great list: ditch foam core signs for cardboard core signs. Easy, and often a neutral cost impact!

    • December 6, 2012 5:55 pm

      Great idea about the foam core signs!

      Let’s figure out the airline pledge idea. I’m not sure how to do it yet, but let’s give it a try!

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