Are styrofoam cups really bad for us?

10 reasons not to use styrofoam

Styrofoam may have some advantages: It protects our buildings inexpensively and functionally against heat loss or fragile goods against damage. But there are several reasons that speak against the widespread production of Styrofoam: first and foremost the devastating consequences for our environment.

Styrofoam has its origins in Germany in the early thirties: For the first time, a plastic foam was conjured up from polystyrene beads with the help of heat and steam, and as a result, the fourth most popular plastic was created.

Styrofoam - also known as EPS - is now used in a variety of ways and is used as thermal insulation in buildings, to protect electronic devices or as packaging for take-away food. But according to the Californian organization “Clean Water Action”, there are numerous reasons why the use of the inexpensive material should be done with caution:

1. Not biodegradable

A styrofoam cup will outlast us all for hundreds of years. The cup is degraded over time, but cannot be converted biologically. In this way, a single cup breaks down into thousands of small particles in a few years, on which substances - even those of a disastrous nature - can better adhere and accumulate.

2. Recycling only partially possible

Only “clean” styrofoam, for example from building insulation, can be recycled. Soiled beverage cups and take-away containers are excluded from recycling - only 0.2 percent of all Styrofoam disposable tableware could be recycled in California. The “Styrofoam chips” that are used to protect fragile parcel contents cannot be recycled either.

3. Ingredient that is harmful to health

Styrene, the building block of the polystyrene beads, is suspected of being carcinogenic in humans and is also a proven neurotoxin. Styrene is released when it is hot or when it comes into contact with fatty, acidic or alcoholic foods and is released into the contents of the styrofoam container - such as your coffee or soup. As a result, styrene can be absorbed by your body, which according to a scientific study is definitely the case: styrene was detected in 100 percent of the tested samples of human adipose tissue.

4. Accumulation of toxic substances along the food chain

The negative consequences of discarded styrofoam are particularly evident in the sea, the collecting basin for all waste. On the one hand, eating styrofoam can lead to starvation or suffocation in marine life. On the other hand, they absorb the toxic substances into their tissues. The flame retardant HBCD, which is used to treat styrofoam in the construction sector, is classified as particularly dangerous for aquatic organisms. Its use is now banned, but the substance still circulates through our ecosystems. Styrene has also already been detected in air, water and soil samples. These potentially dangerous substances accumulate along the food chain, which we, the end consumers, ultimately consume in high concentrations.

5. Dangerous production conditions

In the Styrofoam factories, workers come into contact with other dangerous substances such as acetone, toluene and xylene. The result is increased reports of undesirable side effects such as slower reaction times, hearing problems, difficulty concentrating and a decrease in the number and quality of sperm among factory workers.

6. More expensive than you think

In terms of production costs, Styrofoam does better than any ecological alternatives. On the other hand, the ecological and health benefits dominate among the environmentally friendly alternatives. After all, discarded styrofoam affects our oceans and their inhabitants and at the same time the ecosystem services that we obtain from them: including the regulation of the climate and the food supply, which can hardly be outweighed with money.

7. Production from petroleum

Styrofoam is made from polystyrene beads, which in turn are produced on the basis of petroleum. Although Styrofoam consists of 98 percent air and only two percent of the polystyrene beads, even this small proportion is decisive for the poor environmental balance of Styrofoam. Because just under three liters of crude oil are required for one kilogram of styrofoam.

8. Mosquito breeding ground

As already mentioned, Styrofoam consists almost entirely of air. The consequence: If Styrofoam gets into the environment, it absorbs water like a sponge within a very short time and thus becomes an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.

9. Alternatives are available

A start-up from Texas has developed AeroClay, a compostable bio-plastic that has insulating properties comparable to styrofoam. However, crude oil can be dispensed with for its production. Instead, clay is used as the basic substance for production. In addition, biodegradable disposable tableware, for example made from sugar cane, wood or potato starch and cellulose fibers, can be bought.

10. The ban has an effect

In San Francisco, Styrofoam eating utensils were banned back in 2007, as a result of which Styrofoam waste has been reduced by more than a third. Hopefully other cities or countries will follow this good example.

Further interesting information can be found in the fact sheet of the organization “Clean Water Action”.