Polystyrene In The Foodservice Industry
Polystyrene products, specifically foamed polystyrene products, have been under attack lately. Municipalities and different organizations have proposed various bans on foamed polystyrene foodservice products such as cups, hinged containers and plates citing a variety of reasons. These include such topics as filling up landfills, litter, using scarce resources and safety issues. Most of these claims are based on either false or misguided information. We will attempt to set the record straight and provide you with the facts that are available today.
Polystyrene foodservice single-use items are not filling up landfills. According to EPA statistics, in 2009 plastic single-use, foodservice items made up only 1.3% of the material headed to landfills. Compare that to some of the other materials in the Municipal Waste Stream using the graph below.
Graph provided by the Foodservice Packaging Institute
Another landfill issue brought up again and again is that foamed polystyrene products will not break down in landfills. This is true. However, the point must be made that virtually nothing breaks down in landfills in a reasonable amount of time. This includes organic materials such as food and paper products as well as plastic and other man made materials. Please visit the Biodegradable & Compostable section of the Green Room to become completely informed about what does and does not happen in landfill settings.
Litter is not something caused by foodservice single-use items. Litter is caused by unmanaged and overflowing trash receptacles, the general lack of properly placed trash receptacles and unscrupulous people who knowingly and illegally dump their refuse into the environment. Limiting or banning foamed polystyrene in favor of other types of materials will only lead to those materials being littered. According to Keep American Beautiful, there are seven sources of litter. They are:
- Pedestrians or cyclists who do not use receptacles.
- Motorists who do not use car ashtrays or litter bags.
- Business dumpsters that are improperly covered.
- Loading docks and commercial or recreational marinas with inadequate waste receptacles.
- Construction and demolition sites without tarps and receptacles to contain debris and waste.
- Trucks with uncovered loads on local roads and highways.
- Household trash scattered before or during collection.
Each person must do their part to keep litter down. Keep America Beautiful has a recommended list of ways to prevent litter from individuals to municipalities, none of which are banning any sort of material.
While foamed polystyrene is a petrochemical based material, it uses a minute amount of the nation's supply. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the manufacture of all polystyrene, to produce both durable and packaging products, uses less than a fraction of one percent of the nations natural gas and petroleum. In fact there are very few materials, if any, that can compete with foamed polystyrene's weight-to-strength ratio. Compare the weight of a typical foam hinged container with that of a similar shaped item produced from pulp, fiber or just about any other material. The foam hinged part will weigh around 18 to 20 grams while the others will weigh a minimum of 30 grams upward. The foam hinged part uses less raw material and in most instances uses less energy to produce.
Foamed polystyrene is completely safe to use for food contact applications. In fact according to a study done by the Foodservice Packaging Institute and the Nevada Health Department, single use foodservice items had significantly lower microbial levels when compared to similar reusable foodservice items. Also, because of foamed polystyrene's excellent insulation characteristics, it will keep foods at their optimum temperature longer, whether it is cold or hot, thereby reducing food spoilage.
The Genpak Green Room - Read more about what the foodservice industry, and Genpak, is doing to help the environment.