A recent bill passed by commissioners in Miami Beach will soon have local businesses facing an unexpected economic hardship. After a vote on July 23, leaders of the area have decided to ban the use of polystyrene foam products in all city parks, events, buildings and sidewalk cafes. Polystyrene foam, which is often mistakenly referred to as Styrofoam® – a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company – makes up several forms of the single-use foodservice products. These items, such as hot beverage cups and take-away containers, are safe, cost-effective and provide several amenities that both consumers and vendors prefer over products made out of alternative materials, such as paper.
It’s a misconception that polystyrene foam products are derived from a material that is harmful to humans; often cited is the incorrect notion that styrene, the compound that makes up polystyrene foam, causes cancer. This is simply not true. On the contrary, styrene occurs naturally in many foods consumed by individuals every day, including wheat, beef, strawberries and coffee beans. Federal regulators have concluded that polystyrene is safe for foodservice packaging. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the agency charged with scientific review and approval of food contact applications, has determined for more than 50 years that polystyrene is safe for use in foodservice products. The European Commission/European Food Safety Authority and other regulatory agencies have reached similar conclusions.
Another misleading statement is that foam products are bad for the environment, especially when compared to their alternatives, because they cannot be recycled. The truth is that polystyrene foam can be recycled, while almost all paper beverage products have a waxed lining to prevent leaking of its contents which, in turn, makes them very difficult to recycle.According to the American Chemistry Council, only 10% of paper foodservice items are recycled each year. Not only are paper alternatives to foam not a viable option in terms of responsible disposal, but they also require more energy and resources to be produced. Christopher Bonanos of New York magazine comments: “It takes two and a half times as much energy to make a paper cup as it does to make a foam cup; foam cups are also much lighter than paper cups, reducing the amount of fuel needed to ship them.” As a result of this required energy, a single paper cup has a higher carbon footprint than a single foam cup. Not only are paper-alternatives to foam inferior products from an environmental perspective, but they often cost nearly double the amount of foam items.