No Home for Foam

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By Anneliese Gallagher

On June 5th, the UN released its first ever Global Plastics Report, detailing the myriad ways plastic harms humans and our environment, showing how toxic chemicals from plastic find their way into human and animal tissue. Polystyrene foam is the most hazardous of any plastic variety for both the producer and consumer because foam workers are regularly exposed to carcinogenic chemicals such as styrene and benzene during foam production, and these same chemicals have the potential to leach into our food, also posing a carcinogenic threat. Polystyrene foam is most commonly used in packaging in the fast food industry. In order to keep chemicals out of our food and oceans, major fast food companies have to lead the way on foam bans. 

The fast food industry has yet to make ambitious moves as a whole to dispose of polystyrene foam, despite its detrimental impacts on humans and the environment. Leaders like Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald's are an exception, as they have pledged to get rid of foam packaging entirely and set the bar high for the rest of the industry. In both cases, these progressive measures are the result of years’ worth of shareholder advocacy that managed to change company practices from within. 

Despite a few big wins for the environment, many other corporations like Nestle and PepsiCo have opted to “recycle” all plastic packaging, including polystyrene foam. What does “recycling” foam mean - is it actually possible? - and what are its long-term impacts on ourselves and our precious environment? 

First of all, recycling foam is a long and expensive process. Because polystyrene foam is 95% air, it is inefficient to transport and therefore the costs of even bringing foam to a recycling plant are already high. It is so financially unviable that as of right now, only 9% of polystyrene foam products are actually recycled, meaning the vast majority of foam is ending up in landfills, our environment, and our oceans.  

And because foam is often used for food containers or coffee cups, it ends up with residue or food particles that make it too impure to recycle. Most recycling companies have strict standards for what they'll accept, and many will not take foam that contains a detectable percentage of non-plastic material. These strict rules mean that even if foam makes its way into the recycling bin, it can still end up in a landfill. Individuals or companies who think they are recycling are often unknowingly sending their foam to a landfill, or worse, the environment or ocean. 

The Environmental Protection Agency reports Americans throw out 70 million polystyrene foam cups every day, and scientists estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Polystyrene foam and plastics are by far the largest contributor to this metric. Recycling might help reduce the rate at which we pollute, but it won’t help keep our oceans clean. Companies like Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble have made pledges to recycle the plastic packaging they produce. But recycling promises are unreliable and insufficient, and these corporations need to move towards a full ban to really help our plastic addiction problem. 

The good news is, eliminating polystyrene foam is within reach. More than 100 cities and counties across the US have already banned polystyrene foam. Even more cities across the world are moving towards foam bans, including AustinVancouver, and San Diego. By saying no to foam, these cities show that it is possible to live without it, and that consumers are making conservation a priority. Instead of making empty recycling promises, it’s time for fast food companies to eliminate polystyrene foam entirely.