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What is Styrofoam?

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Styrofoam is something we use and see every day but don’t realize its negative presence. Styrofoam is created from benzene, along with several other chemicals, which is a petroleum product (i.e., non-sustainable, heavily polluting, and scarce) and a known carcinogen. Pentane, which is also used in the creation of Styrofoam, contributes to urban smog and global warming. Styrofoam does not break down but lasts virtually forever.

Very few recycling companies will recycle Styrofoam so the majority of the time it gets shipped to a landfill where it takes up a considerable amount of space. It breaks into small fragments, which can choke animals; over 100,000 marine animals die per year from Styrofoam and other plastic trash. Styrofoam covers more area in landfills than paper products do and will eventually enter back into the surrounding environment by water flow and wind. Additionally, millions of tons of polystyrene get incinerated and end up as airborne toxic ash.

But just in case water contamination and clouds of toxic ash are not valid-enough reasons to convince you to bring in your reusable mugs, then maybe the potential health effects of Styrofoam will have an impact. Polystyrene foam has chemicals that leach out into the food or liquid (e.g., acidic coffee) they contain. Styrene was found in 100 percent of all samples of human fat tissue taken as part of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Human Tissue Survey in 1986. There it can build up to levels that can cause reproductive problems, fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping, blood abnormalities and even carcinogenic effects.

The people who make polystyrene foam are most at risk to contract these harmful effects. Even McDonald’s phased out Styrofoam packaging for its hamburgers in 1989 in favor of the paperboard containers. Without any regulation on the production and sale of polystyrene products, the only way to stave off its negative environmental and health impacts is to act locally, one mug at a time.