The chemical styrene is on the National Institutes of Health’s list of chemicals that could cause cancer. Laboratory studies suggest that exposure to styrene damages white blood cells, which may increase the risk of contracting leukemia or lymphoma. Additional research suggests that exposure to styrene may raise the likelihood of esophageal and pancreatic cancer among workers who manufacture styrene or products that contain styrene.
Foam is nasty for the planet, too. It takes a good 500 years to degrade. And in the meantime, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces made of toxic oil-based polymers that get into soil and water and may be consumed by birds, fish and other animals. Because it is so light, it is easily blown about, creating unsightly litter. Plus, styrene foam that has been used for drinks or food is not recyclable. Some packaging shops may accept foam packing peanuts for re-use, but no one is going to take a used coffee-stained foam cup.
What Can You Do to Skip the Styrene?
- Use your own reusable water bottle or coffee mug. Pretty much every truck stop, fast-food joint, and roadside stand I’ve ever been at has been happy to put my tea or coffee in my own mug rather than in one of their foam cups.
- Be prepared when you travel by air. Most airlines still serve hot beverages in foam cups. Make sure you pack your reusable mug in your carry-on bag and pull it out when you take your seat so you can easily hand it to the flight attendant when food service gets underway.
- Skip vending machines that dispense hot coffee in a foam cup.
- The same goes for vending machines and carry-out restaurants that serve hot soup in a foam cup.
- If you’re throwing a party, use paper cups or reusables rather than foam. You can get heavy-duty paper cups for hot drinks and paper plates instead of foam. What I’ve done over the years is invest in reusable cups, plates, cutlery and napkins. I can now accommodate up to 40 people if necessary without having to buy a single foam or throwaway cup.
- If you want to take left-overs home from a restaurant, bring your own containers with tight-fitting lids. Alternatively, ask your server to wrap your leftovers in aluminum foil rather than foam.
- Avoid instant food like ramen noodles and some soups that come in a foam bowl that you’re supposed to microwave to heat up. The last thing you want to do is eat food that could be contaminated by toxins that leak out of styrene when it’s microwaved.
- Think ahead. The reason why we consumer so much food out of foam containers is that we’re not in the habit of bringing our own safer alternatives. Make it routine to bring your own cup, mug, or reusable doggie bag. And just say no to styrene.
- Sign a petition (or start your own) asking your city officials to ban styrofoam.