UBC Wiki:Ecological and social costs of single-use Styrofoam containers

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Styrofoam is a light, insulating, and economically viable material commonly used for packaging products as well as food, globally. Styrofoam is also known as polystyrene and is one of the five major plastic groups mass produced and used commercially. It is no secret that the environmental implications of Styrofoam can be devastating and that it has major negative impacts on both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. As well as this, Styrofoam can also have very negative effects on human health and has proven to contribute to certain types of cancers. Despite the negative effects of Styrofoam, it is still widely used due to its minimal manufacturing costs and its antibacterial properties.

In recent years, the environmental implications of single use Styrofoam packaging, along with other plastics, has come to light and prompted companies as well as cities to switch from using Styrofoam to greener alternatives. Although this switch may seem like the obvious course of action, the adjustment to greener alternatives has proven difficult for many small businesses due to the increase in production price of alternatives. The use of single use Styrofoam for packaging has both environmental and societal impacts, hence why the feasibility of a Styrofoam ban as well as finding greener alternatives will be explored in this article.

Environmental Impacts of Styrofoam

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Impacts on wildlife

Styrofoam, or polystyrene, is one of the five major classes of plastics which includes polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, nylon, and polystyrene. Styrofoam has many environmental repercussions including being the main source of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDs) found in many marine organisms[1]. Styrofoam poses a large issue for many organisms, including fungi, most animals, and mixed microbial communities living both in oceans and on land because it is non digestible if consumed[2].

North America produces approximately 1,007,000 mt of Styrofoam for packaging of food alone, which does not account for the remaining 42% of Styrofoam packaging used for the packaging of appliances, toys, electronics, and construction supplies[3]. Much of this Styrofoam ends up in landfills or in the ocean due to careless waste management inevitably leading to consumption by many marine and terrestrial organisms. As ocean temperatures rise and food becomes scarce for many animals, the amount of polystyrene consumed will only increase. Because polystyrene is the main chemical component in Styrofoam and is non-digestible, the Styrofoam consumed by these organisms can result in major complications which often leads to death. For example, when birds participate in polystyrene consumption, their ability to absorb iron through their intestinal villi is greatly reduced when compared to birds who had not been consuming polystyrene[4].

Out of the five groups of plastics, polystyrene is the third most common microplastic polymer found in marine life, accounting for approximately 5.6% of the microplastic found in the gut[5]. Microplastic has become such an issue in marine environments that organisms are beginning to consume less of their traditional diet due to microplastics replacing large portions of their diet. It was found that when zooplankton were exposed to environments with both algae and microplastics present, the zooplankton consumed 11% fewer algae cells because they had replaced these with the consumption of microplastic[6]. The consumption of Styrofoam by animals can lead to the indirect consumption of polystyrene by humans as small particles often end up in meat.

Costs of Production on the Environment

Styrofoam not only has large negative impacts after it has been used, but also has many environmental costs during production. When comparing the production of polystyrene egg cups to the production of recycled paper egg cups, the polystyrene egg cups had a higher energy consumption level in fuel, natural gas, lignite, coal, and hydro electrical energy; however, compared to recycled paper egg cups, polystyrene egg cups produce half as much heavy metal and solid waste[7]. Due to the high amounts of natural gas released from the production of Styrofoam, the environment not only suffers from the after effects of Styrofoam waste, but also the production.

Polystyrene accounts for approximately 9.7% of the total plastic produced worldwide[8]. Single use Styrofoam containers are used by an estimated FACT ABOUT COMPANIES THAT USE THEM yearly. Decomposition of Styrofoam has also very large environmental impacts due to its lack of decomposability. FACT ABOUT DECOMPOSITION OR LACK THERE OF.

Societal Implications of Styrofoam

Health Implications

Styrofoam is widely used in the food industry. It is seen as a cost-effective method of distributing food and packing up leftovers in restaurants, which contributes towards its popularity among businesses. However, studies have concluded that Styrofoam negatively impacts public health, as it is primarily composed of carcinogens such as benzene and styrene (Santos-Burgoa et al. 1992). Besides the increased risk of cancer from exposure to carcinogens, other detrimental health effects can include the development of neurological problems (Chandra et al., 2016). Additionally, an average of 9,000 workers are estimated to be exposed to styrene annually during the production of polystyrene, making them vulnerable to the problems listed above (Santos-Burgoa et al. 1992).

Socioeconomic Impications

The Styrofoam industry also provides jobs for many people. According to Stevan Allen, a writer at PRWeb, an estimated 8,000 jobs would be lost as a result of a total styrofoam ban in California (Allen, 2011).

Routes of Entry

There are several ways that the chemicals in Styrofoam can enter and harm the body. Styrofoam is known to leach chemicals into food and drinks, especially when they are hot (Ahmad and Bajahlan, 2007). The study found that "hot water was found to be contaminated with styrene and other aromatic compounds" (Ahmad and Bajahlan, 2007). Moreover, the concentration of styrene in the liquid stored in the styrofoam container for the study "increased to 69.53 microg/L after [a year of] storage" (Ahmad and Bajahlan, 2007). Therefore, not only does styrofoam present an immediate hazard when using it with food and drink at high temperatures, it contaminates its contents when used as a container for long-term storage.

Economical Responses to a Ban

Feasibility of a Ban on Styrofoam

If existing literature has already exposed the negative environmental and social costs of Styrofoam containers, why is it a challenge to eliminate them completely? In reality, although cities such as San Jose, California and Seattle, Washington have already banned usage of Styrofoam containers by take-out food service providers, it can be difficult for other cities to hop on board due to the associated challenges. For instance, a city must be able to face the tradeoff between reduced environmental impacts by eliminating Styrofoam in landfills and increased economic costs of alternative solutions. Additionally, cities must be able to access “greener” alternatives and implement their usage as soon as a ban is in effect. This will pose new challenges to business owners in the foodservice industry which will be discussed below. An optimistic view is as more success is seen in cities with an imposed Styrofoam ban, it will influence more cities to impose these policies.

Economic Costs of a Ban on Styrofoam

Styrofoam containers reached their popularity in the foodservice industry due to its minimal production costs as well as antibacterial qualities for storing food and beverages. Existing alternatives are typically more expensive to produce or lacks durability to store foods for long periods of time.

A study conducted in New York City, where a Styrofoam ban has been implemented, demonstrates the estimated cost to replace Styrofoam food and drink containers with the lowest-cost alternative is $91.3million. This increases the effective minimum average cost by 94%. In order words, for every dollar spent on Styrofoam containers, businesses and consumers in New York City must spend at least $1.94 on alternative replacements. This 94% environmental tax is far higher than any current sales tax or import duty rates affecting the cost of consumer products[9].

A ban this scale affects all food service businesses, specifically targeting businesses with low-profit margins who are less able to absorb the cost increase[9].This includes typically street vendors and restaurants who are typically run by minorities. It is expected that 2000 jobs and $400 million in economic activity are eliminated in New York alone [10]. As a result, small businesses, mostly mom-and-pop shops and bodegas, have signed a petition calling on the city mayor to reverse the ban on Styrofoam containers as it will “hurt their bottom lines”[11].

In California, under proposed Assembly Bill 1358, restaurants, retail food vendors and state facilities would be authorized to use compostable containers or recyclable plastic, or paper products made from 100% recycled material. Restaurant owners mostly agree with environmental and social incentives; however, they point out the expensive nature of green alternatives. As a result, these business owners could face reduced profits unless actions such as increasing menu prices are taken. Additionally, many argued that some compostable and biodegradable products have a tendency to melt when exposed to hot foods [12]. Therefore, the actual cost of this switch for restaurant and business owners will likely be higher, in order to ensure the replacement product can deliver equivalent performance in the market[9]. Although, activists are optimistic that a statewide ban would immediately create a market for green disposables, therefore lowering its production costs dramatically[12]. At the same time, a major demand spike generated by a city such as New York City can cause increased prices and possibly shortages of alternative product materials, at least in the short term [9].

The overall economic impacts will vary by individual business, grocery stores have more control over these price changes whereas restaurant price changes are restricted to changing menus. Although it is difficult to measure the elasticity of demand, a slight decrease in demand is to be expected

Economical costs of a Styrofoam recycling program

As an alternative solution to a complete ban on Styrofoam products, recycling programs can be implemented if nearby facilities are available. For instance, the City of San Diego launched a new Styrofoam recycling system at the annual cost of $90,000. This is due to costs involved in transporting Styrofoam containers to a specific sorting facility in Los Angeles County since it is not processable at regular recycling facilities. This policy was imposed due to pushes from Styrofoam production companies such as Dart Container Corporation to continue manufacturing their products [13].

Alternatives to Styrofoam Containers

New Policies to ban Styrofoam

Major cities like New York City have adopted new policies to disallow the usage of single-use styrofoam containers[14]. In addition, cities like Vancouver are implementing new policies in attempt to reduce or remove the use of single-use styrofoam containers. Starting in June 2019, the city of Vancouver is introducing a bylaw that “prohibits business license holders from serving prepared food in polystyrene foam cups and take-out containers”[15]. Due to this prohibition, businesses that are using styrofoam containers will now have to find other alternatives for the unsustainable container they are supplying.

Alternatives to Styrofoam

Currently, many businesses are supplying biodegradable, eco-friendly compostable take-out containers as an alternative to polystyrene, but the most affordable alternative businesses use are paper products. For example, companies like Booster Juice have been serving their drinks in styrofoam cups for many years, and with the recent switch to paper cups in 2017, the Recycle BC program allows the paper cups to be recycled which are then "turned into everyday items like tissue and toilet paper"[16]. Additionally, UBC’s residence dining halls are only supplying compostable or recyclable take-out containers while charging the customer an extra fee to make up for the price difference in supplying an eco-friendly alternative. The university also implements a reusable take-out container program while offering the customer a $0.20 discount on their meal[17]. These two alternatives provide a more sustainable method to reduce the amount of polystyrene waste created, automatically resulting in a decrease in unsustainable materials that would be used to produce the containers, and waste that would generally end up in landfills as polystyrene is very expensive to recycle[18]. Other, more obscure alternatives include

Benefits of Using Alternative Containers

As stated previously, the production of styrofoam has detrimental impacts to humans and wildlife due to the high amounts of natural gas released from the production. With the ban of styrofoam containers, no natural gas would be released into the atmosphere since there is nothing to produce. The use of compostable containers would benefit the environment as microorganisms would break down the container in compostable sites[19]. Since composting reduces the amount of waste that would end up in a landfill, compostable containers would help reduce waste, and this would then reduce methane emissions from landfills[20], improving soil quality and fertility to improve plant growth[21].


  1. Jang, M., Shim, W.J., Han, G.M., Rani, M., Song, Y.K., Hong, S.H. (2016). "Styrofoam debris as a source of hazardous additives for marine organisms". Environmental Science and Technology. 
  2. Kaplan, D.L., Hartenstein, R., Sutter, J. (1979). "Biodegradation of polystyrene, poly(methyl methacrylate), and phenol formaldehyde" (PDF). Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 
  3. Scheirs, J., Priddy, D., (2003). Modern Styrenic Polymers: Polystyrenes and Styrenic Copolymers. Wiley. 
  4. Mahler, G.J., Esch, M.B., Tako, E., Southland, T.L., Archer, S.D., Glahn, R.P., Shuler, M.L. (2012). "Oral exposure to polystyrene nanoparticles affects iron absorption". Nature Nanotechnology. 7. 
  5. Karami, A., Golieskardi, A., Bin Ho, Y., Larat, V., Salamatinia, B. (2017). "Microplastics in eviscerated flesh and excised organs of dried fish". Scientific Reports. 7. 
  6. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Fileman, E., Halsband, C., Galloway, T.S. (2015). "The Impact of Polystyrene Microplastics on Feeding, Function and Fecundity in the Marine Copepod Calanus helgolandicus". Environmental Science and Technology. 
  7. Zabaniotou, A., Kassidi, E. (2002). "Life cycle assessment applied to egg packaging made from polystyrene and recycled paper". Journal of Cleaner Production. 11. 
  8. Wiinsch, J.R. (2000). Polystyrene: Synthesis, Production and Applications. p. 6. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 MB Public Affairs Inc. (n.d.). Fiscal and Economic Impacts of a Ban on Plastic Foam Foodservice and Drink Containers in New York City. [Online] Retrieved from: https://www.plasticfoodservicefacts.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/NYC-Foodservice-Impact-Study.pdf
  10. Shughart II, W.F. & Colton, K. (May 23rd, 2018). SURPRISE! Banning Styrofoam Creates All Kinds of Problems Including Environmental Ones. Independent. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.org/news/article.asp?id=9387
  11. Fermino, J., & Jennifer Fermino. (07/21/2015). Small-biz push: Save styrofoam Daily News L.P. Retrieved from: https://global.factiva.com/ga/default.aspx
  12. 12.0 12.1 Jennings, L. (March 9th, 2009). Calif.'s proposed polystyrene ban could pack costly punch: Restaurants decry shortage of affordable 'green' containers Lebhar-Friedman. Retrieved from: http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=d3d2d766-22ef-4222-86b3-9ee6b6fa1511%40sessionmgr103
  13. San Diego’s new Styrofoam recycling program comes with a big cost. (2017). Informa. New York. Retrieved from: https://search.proquest.com/docview/1925075065/citation/10E55FD52158445FPQ/1?accountid=14656
  14. City of New York (2019). "Foam Ban Information". The Official Website of the City of New York NYC.  line feed character in |website= at position 45 (help)
  15. City of Vancouver (2018). "Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy". City of Vancouver. 
  16. Recycle BC (n.d.). "Stop Talking Trash, and Start Recycling Your Coffee Cups in Your Blue Bin!". 
  17. The University of British Columbia (2019). "Reduce Waste". UBC Sustainability. 
  18. Bois; et al. (n.d.). "Sustainable To-Go Food Containers" (PDF). 
  19. Cho, Renee (2017). "The Truth About Bioplastics". Phys.org. 
  20. United States Environmental Protection Agency (2018). "Composting At Home". 
  21. Quigley, Justin (2011). "Why Should I Compost?". 

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This conservation resource was created by Will. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.