The Ugly Truth of Expanded Polystyrene Foam

Public schools and food service establishments commonly choose polystyrene foam (sometimes called Styrofoam, a DOW Chemical Company trademark) for food packaging. However, there are serious public health and environmental consequences to serving food to our students in polystyrene. Polystyrene is comprised of toxins, litters neighborhoods, pollutes waterways, and harms wildlife.

More than 70 cities across the country have successfully passed polystyrene bans including Rahway, NJ, Washington DC, San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR, Miami, FL, and Nantucket, MA. New York City replaced polystyrene with compostable trays in all New York City schools in 2015. The Surfrider Foundation maintains a full list of polystyrene bans.

What We’re Doing

Plastic Free Waters partners have worked tirelessly to shift towards sustainable food receptacles in public schools. Eliminating polystyrene from our public schools and institutions of higher education will reduce litter in our waterways and neighborhoods, protect aquatic life, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

More Information

Waterways in New York and New Jersey are affected directly by polystyrene.

  • According to NY/NJ Baykeeper’s NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Plastic Report, at least 165 million plastic particles are floating in Harbor waters at any given time. The most abundant type of plastic found in samples was polystyrene at approximately 40 percent.
  • Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic, a non-sustainable, non-biodegradable material. Polystyrene takes at least 500 years to degrade.
  • Polystyrene is flimsy. The smaller it gets, the more difficult it is to cleanup from neighborhood streets, parks, and beaches. According to Clean Ocean Action’s 2014 Beach Sweeps report, 24,776 pieces of polystyrene foam were collected off of New Jersey’s beaches.
  • Once in our waterways, polystyrene breaks off into smaller pieces and is mistaken by fish for food and travels up the food chain.
  • As a type of plastic, polystyrene has the ability to absorb contaminants present in local waterways such as PCBs, DDT, oil from cars, hydrocarbons, and more. Thus, aquatic life ingesting plastic are also ingesting these contaminants that bioaccumulate in our ecosystems.
  • Polystyrene cannot be cost-effectively recycled and is thus sent to landfills and incinerators.
  • The manufacturing of polystyrene contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Public Health Considerations

Phasing out polystyrene in NJ public schools will reduce exposure to harmful contaminants and health consequences for our children.

  • Styrene, used to make polystyrene, is a known lab animal carcinogen and possible human carcinogen.
  • According to the U.S. EPA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is medical evidence to suggest that styrene, a primary component of polystyrene foam, migrates from polystyrene foam containers into food and drink and then stores in human fat tissue.
  • In a 1982 study conducted by the U.S. EPA, styrene was detected in all of eight human-breast milk samples from women in four U.S. cities.
  • The U.S. EPA has stated that the physical properties of polystyrene foam are such that the material can have serious impacts on human health, wildlife, the aquatic environment and the economy.”
  • Perry Elizabeth Sheffield, MD, Mount Sinai School of Medicine said, “As Environmental Pediatricians at Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, we support the campaign to reduce use of styrofoam trays.


Economic Considerations

Public schools can collectively purchase eco-friendly packaging alternatives to keep costs low and keep demand high.

  • Proponents of disposable to-go containers argue that a financial burden will result from replacing polystyrene with an alternative material. However, certain alternatives are comparably in the same price range and trickle down to pose positive economic benefits when used. Implementing a phase-out of polystyrene products in public schools may help reduce the price in alternative products as the demand increases.
  • When New York City decided to eliminate polystyrene trays from schools in 2013, the Urban School Food Alliance was founded comprising New York, Miami, Orlando, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Fort Lauderdale. The Alliance collectively purchases compostable plates to drive down cost and maximize the purchasing power of the seven cities.
  • Polystyrene cannot be cost-effectively recycled, although lobbyists will try to argue otherwise.  According to The New York Times, Dart Container Corporation and the Chemistry Council spent close to 1 million dollars to defeat a city-wide ban of polystyrene at New York City food service establishments in 2013.

Alternatives to Polystyrene

There are various sustainable alternatives to polystyrene including paper or recycled paper products, cardboard, and reusable plastic trays.

Replacing polystyrene food packaging with a sustainable alternative will effectively reduce neighborhood litter, protect wildlife and aquatic ecosystems, and prevent children from being exposed to harmful contaminants at lunchtime. Lobbyists will argue otherwise, but polystyrene manufacturers do not have our children’s or environment’s best interests at heart.