Styrofoam cups are created from polystyrene. It is a petroleum-based plastic that is lightweight in nature, composed of about 95% air, and offers insulation properties that are perfect for cups. It isn’t actually “Styrofoam” thougch: that is a trademarked name for housing insulation.
It’s just easier to say than, “Can I get you some water in your petroleum-based polystyrene cup?”
As for the environmental impact of these cups, there are some immediate health concerns that must be addressed. There are manufacturing concerns to look at. There is also the development of pollutants which must be examined. Here are the Styrofoam cups environmental impact concerns to consider.
1. Styrene affects the central nervous system.
People involved in the creation of styrene, as well as anyone exposed to the substance, is at-risk for several acute health risks. These include minor conditions, such as skin irritation headaches, ongoing fatigue, or depression-like symptoms. Styrene is also classified as a carcinogen and is known to interfere with the kidneys.
2. Polystyrene manufacturing creates hazardous waste.
In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency listed the creation of polystyrene as the fifth-largest hazardous waste creator in the United States. There are nearly 60 chemical byproducts that are released when this foam is burned as well. The end result is air, liquid, and solid waste pollution that has a direct effect on the environment.
3. The chemicals in polystyrene can enter the food chain.
This is especially true for foam products that are microwaved with food products. The toxic chemicals in polystyrene threaten health and reproductive systems.
4. The manufacturing of polystyrene creates hydrocarbons.
Hydrocarbons are released into the air at ground level through the manufacturing of what we’d call Styrofoam cups. When these hydrocarbons mix with nitrogen oxide and sunlight, the end result is the creation of ground level ozone. When exposed to ozone over long periods of time, the tissues of the lung permanently change. Ozone exposure also decreases the body’s ability to fight infections over time.
5. Polystyrene fills up our landfills.
This foam that is used in cups is not considered to be a biodegradable product. When we throw it away, it does not break down over time. Because of this, the volume of space that we use for our landfills is 30% composed of polystyrene products. Because of this issue, many cities and countries have banned and outlawed the product.
6. It cannot be recycled into the same product.
Polystyrene cups are recycled into packing materials and other foam products. This means new resources must be continually used in order to keep producing more Styrofoam cups. Because of this, the market for recycling these cups is small and tends to be shrinking.
If there is one bright spot, the Styrofoam cups environmental impact has created a new type of product: biodegradable polymers. Over time, these environmentally friendly foam products will reduce the amount of polystyrene that is used and disposed of on a regular basis, which will eventually lessen the current impact levels being experienced.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.