by: Leslie Jones

Is Styrofoam recyclable since it has a recycling symbol on it?  Has this question crossed your mind?  Styrofoam is actually a genericized brand name for the actual material called polystyrene.  Polystyrene containers do have a recycle symbol in it, but very few recycling centers accept it.  There are a couple reasons for this.  Polystyrene is such a light material and, since raw commodity recycling is purchased by the ton, its market value is less than other commodities. It may be more profitable in extremely large quantities, but usual amounts produced by residential recycling collection has very little demand as a recycled product. It can, however, be made into products like insulation and packing material.

The recycle symbol on polystyrene also lets consumers know what type of plastics and other materials are used in its production.  The component that is of utmost concern with respect to #6 plastic is phthalates. “Phthalates, called “plasticizers,” are a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible or resilient and also as solvents. Phthalates are nearly ubiquitous in modern society, found in, among other things, toys, food packaging, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, wall coverings, lubricants, adhesives, detergents, nail polish, hair spray and shampoo.”*

Phthalates are only one of the chemicals in polystyrene.  “The biggest environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger associated with Styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene. Styrene is used extensively in the manufacture of plastics, rubber, and resins. About 90,000 workers, including those who make boats, tubs and showers, are potentially exposed to styrene. Acute health effects are generally irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system showing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, and weakness, and can cause minor effects on kidney function and blood. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

An EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste.· The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste. Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems. These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.”**

So should we stay away from polystyrene altogether?  Not necessarily.  We should, however, avoid having any consumables come into contact with it, especially when it comes to the microwave.