Eliminate the Use of Polystyrene

excerpted from Making Government Purchasing Green

Though polystyrene manufacturers claim that their products are "ozone-friendly" or free of CFCs, this is only partially true. Some polystyrene is now manufactured with HCFC-22, which, though less destructive than its chemical cousins, CFC-11 and CFC-12, is still a greenhouse gas and harmful to the ozone layer. 53 In fact, according to a 1992 study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, HCFCs are three to five times more destructive to the ozone layer than previously believed.54

Polystyrene has serious negative impacts on workers producing it. According to the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, styrene, a component of polystyrene, leaches into food from polystyrene foodware. Styrene has been found in 100 percent of human tissue samples and 100 percent of human nursing milk samples tested. There is evidence that styrene is a carcinogen and neurotoxin,55 and it has also been linked to reproductive problems.

Styrene has also been linked to increased levels of chromosomal damage, abnormal pulmonary function and cancer in workers at polystyrene and styrene plants. 57 After determining the level of exposure to styrene at which workers suffer chromosomal abnormalities, both Germany and Finland established permitted levels of exposure that are much lower than levels permitted in the United States.58

Manufacturing polystyrene is also a major producer of pollution. In 1986, EPA ranked the 20 chemicals whose production generated the most hazardous wasted. Polystyrene was number five.59

Polystyrene recycling programs are heavily subsidized by polystyrene manufacturers to improve the environmental image of their products.60 Furthermore, polystyrene recycling is not "closed loop" - collected polystyrene cups are not remanufactured into cups, but into other products, such as packing filler and cafeteria trays. This means that more resources will have to be used, and more pollution created, to produce more polystyrene cups.

A study by the Portland, Oregon, public school system concluded that switching the school system from polystyrene to reusable polycarbonate foodware would, over a five-year period, save 11 billion BTUs of energy. It would prevent 248,000 pounds of solid waste and 60,000 pounds of airborne emissions (chiefly, pentane, a greenhouse gas and contributor to smog, and sulfur dioxide, and acid rain pollutant). It would increase water consumption by 10,600,000 gallons and produce 39,500 pounds of waterborne waste. The amount of water used, equivalent to the domestic consumption of 38 households, could be reduced with water-efficient washing machines.61

Strategies and Examples


  1. "Study Finds CFC Alternatives More Damaging Than Believed," The Washington Post, December 10, 1989.
  2. "Styrene: Health Affects of Low-Level Exposure," FASE Reports, Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, CA, Winter 1988, p. 1.
  3. "Reproductive Effects of Environmental Chemical Exposure," FASE Reports, Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, CA, Spring 1992.
  4. "Re:sources," Environmental Action Magazine, Environmental Action, Takoma Park, MD July/August 1988, p. 19.
  5. "Styrene: Health Effects of Low-Level Exposure," op. cit.
  6. "Re:sources," op. cit.
  7. "Plastics Industry Grasps for Straws," Everyone's Backyard, January/February 1990, Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, p. 6.
  8. Environmental Costs and Benefits of Switching from Polystyrene Disposable Ware to Polycarbonate Permanent Ware," prepared for the Portland, OR, Board of Education, April 25, 1991.

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    Last modified: 4 Mar 1996