Is This the Beginning of the End for Polystyrene and PVC?

New Plastics Economy report seeks replacement of polystyrene foam

Is this the beginning of the end for expanded polystyrene, the versatile but often criticized and increasingly risky foam packaging used for takeout food, coffee cups and package cushioning?

Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s new report, “The New Plastics Economy — Catalyzing Action,” released last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and endorsed by 40 global leaders, recommended replacing polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (EPS), and polyvinyl chloride as packaging materials globally. The report singled out these three materials as “uncommon” plastic packaging materials whose replacement would make a “huge impact.” Replacing PVC, EPS, and PS would enhance the economics of recycling and reduce the potential negative impact of these materials as “substances of concern.” The report noted that EPS is often used for takeout food packaging but is rarely recycled and often contaminated with waste food, making it harder to recycle.

 Source: MacArthur Foundation

Source: MacArthur Foundation

Polystyrene has garnered concerns around both occupational safety in its production and its environmental fate. The International Agency for Research on Cancer says styrene, used in the production of polystyrene, is a possible human carcinogen. PS foam is often swept into rivers and oceans, and is one of the top items found in annual beach cleanups. Foam packaging materials break down into small indigestible pellets which are mistaken for food.

Ingestion can result in death of birds, turtles, and whales. PS foam may pose a higher risk to marine animals than other plastics due to its hazardous constituent chemicals and research showing it can accumulate high concentrations of waterborne toxins in a short time frame. Polystyrene has caused decreased reproduction in laboratory populations of oysters and fish.

The report was endorsed by leaders of 15 big brands including Coca-Cola Co, Danone, L’Oreal, Marks & Spencer, Mars, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. Another prominent signatory was Dow Chemical Co., a manufacturer of styrene, polystyrene and the vinyl chloride monomer used to make PVC. Dow’s CEO Andrew Liveris praised the report as “a key step in delivering science-based solutions by providing options that help us close resource loops for plastics…” EPS has estimated annual global sales of $13.2 billion.

This action, along with last year’s MacArthur report, The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the Future of Plastics, stating there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, should be a giant wake up call to brands using polystyrene. More than 500 NGOs globally launched a campaign called Break Free From Plastic last September, which appears to be gearing up to press for phase out of wasteful single use plastic applications, which have become commonplace in our convenience-centered society.

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The recommendations align strongly with As You Sow’s long-standing efforts to promote sustainable packaging. In 2011, we engaged McDonald’s Corp. and Dunkin’ Brands, which were using EPS foam beverage cups, to phase out their use in the U.S. McDonald’s agreed to in 2013 and replaced foam with paper cups. Dunkin’ also committed to phase out but has not yet followed through. The only national fast food chain still committed to using foam cups is Chick-fil-A, according to As You Sow original research in our  report. This landmark report, which can be downloaded for free from our website, is the only recent publicly available research we are aware of that analyzes the packaging materials used and recycling practices of the fast food and beverage sectors from a sustainability perspective.

Due to increasing concerns about the impact of plastic pollution in the ocean, we have returned to McDonald’s this year to ask the company to expand the foam cup phase out globally after we heard reports of its continued use in foreign markets.

We also began dialogues with three major e-commerce brands — Amazon, Target, and Walmart — about their use of EPS foam packaging. If you order a weighty item from one of these retailers, chances are it will arrive framed in a shell of EPS foam that in most communities is sent to the landfill. We know from MacArthur’s report that up to a third of materials escape even the landfill and are littered onto streets and swept into storm drains, rivers and oceans.

Dell and Ikea have already taken leadership roles in phasing out foam as a packing material. In announcing its commitment to phase out EPS foam last year, Peter Larsson, Packaging Sustainability Leader at IKEA stated: “Why should we fill the air in our flat packs with something that is more dangerous than the air itself?” Indeed. Dell has pioneered use of mushroom-based compostable molded cushions as an alternative to foam. The company says 72 percent of its flat-panel monitors and 65 percent of desktops are packaged in foam-free, sustainably sourced materials.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stated in a 2013 letter to customers that no EPS foam is used in its frustration-free packaging, but that likely applies to a small amount of packaging relative to total packages shipped by the company. We are awaiting responses from all three companies about the extent of their use of EPS foam.

Learn more about our initiative to fight ocean plastic pollution here.