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Eco-Friendly Styrofoam Alternatives. Why Polystyrene is Bad for the Environment

Styrofoam’s environmental impact are far-reaching. Not only does it take up millions upon millions of square feet in landfills, but this toxic material can also cause serious health problems for both humans and animals alike! That's why we should all be paying closer attention when ordering our favorite Chinese food or grabbing some sandwiches at lunchtime--we might just save someone else from making an unfortunate choice that could have been much worse than simply not eating those foods at all.

How so? Well, it turns out there are reasons to be concerned about this material. It's been found in oceans and rivers that produce the food consumed by people. Food sources have in turn consumed these plastic toxins because they accumulate in natural feeding areas as microplastics.

This dilemma is not news to most of us.

In this day and age, we are all too aware of the damage that plastic can do to our environment. It turns out the Styrofoam issue may be even worse than we thought because of the pure quantity of material entering landfills each hour.

What Is Styrofoam and Why Should We Avoid It?

Styrofoam: EPS or Expanded Polystyrene Foam

Essentially, Styrofoam is plastic in a slightly different form. It starts as polystyrene,  a synthetic plastic polymer made from petroleum. It's most commonly used to make packaging, such as Styrofoam containers and plastic straws. While it's cheap and easy to produce, polystyrene is not biodegradable and creates significant environmental problems when it's disposed of improperly. In this article, we'll explore the impacts of polystyrene on the environment and discuss why businesses should avoid using it.

Polystyrene is used to make clear products, lab equipment or combined with colorants, additives or other plastics to create toys, car parts, appliances and much more. EPS, Expanded Polystyrene Foam is made up of mostly air — around 95% in fact. Over the years, EPS has become a go-to in the creation of insulated products like coffee cups and coolers. It’s so light, it’s used for products that float like rafts and life jackets, and it’s often used in shipping to cushion products.

It is also used in food packaging material. In this case, EPS’s durability is simply wasted, especially when the practical use is no more than a few days or often a few minutes. Outlasting its purpose by centuries, these materials are discarded and break down in our garbage while entering the life cycle of animals, ecosystems and humans in a way our innovation had never intended.  

Why Do We Continue to Use EPS?

When plastics are repurposed, they can be an effective and inexpensive tool. It is hard to fault our society for being drawn into its versatility. Polystyrene is a common plastic that is used to make many everyday items. The low production expense and low weight have led us to overproduce such plastics for our single-use items. This is why you may recognize Styrofoam as a common food take-out container, or as insulation in packaging.  While it may be convenient, polystyrene is actually a polystyrene environmental impact major environmental pollutant.

There's a good chance you have some polystyrene products in your home or office right now. Polystyrene is a very versatile material, but it comes with some serious health and environmental concerns. We'll take a closer look at what polystyrene is and why you should avoid it if possible.

The Dangers of Polystyrene For People And The Environment

In today's society, it seems as though more and more people are becoming conscious of the dangers that polystyrene poses to both people and the environment. 

There are news studies appearing all of the time on how chemicals used in the manufacturing of plastics are toxic. Biomonitoring measures the concentration of environmental contaminants in human tissue, and the results warrant a change in our habits. Such chemicals have also been correlated with adverse effects on the human population, including reproductive abnormalities. This is just the beginning of what we are learning. 

There are accounts of inadvertent contamination of soils with small plastic fragments as a consequence of spreading sewage sludge (Zubris & Richards 2005), fragments of plastic and glass contaminating compost prepared from municipal solid waste (Brinton 2005) and plastic being carried into streams, rivers and ultimately the sea with rainwater and flood events.

There is another pollution concern. Much of this garbage finds its way into oceans and polymers are buoyant in water, and common plastic cartons and bottles tend to trap air, so they accumulate on the sea surface and are washed ashore. We can see the effect on shorelines as (50–80%) of shoreline debris (Barnes et al. 2009), more than 100 000 items find their way on shorelines, bringing these hazards to contaminate new ecosystems. 

This is a world-wide issue; it will take a world-wide effort. As a result, many businesses are looking for eco-friendly alternatives to polystyrene. 

-Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873021

Eco-friendly Alternatives to Polystyrene

As we’ve mentioned, Polystyrene is a material made from petroleum. It is non-biodegradable and takes centuries to decompose. As a result, it often finds its way into landfills where it takes up valuable space and can release harmful toxins into the air and water. There are many eco-friendly alternatives to Polystyrene that are better for the planet and will not affect your budget adversely. Here are a few alternative materials that can be used in place of Polystyrene.

Corn-Based Packaging

Corn is not only a plant-based product that breaks down naturally, but it is a renewable resource that can be grown easily. For the purpose of packaging materials, the corn does not need to be food grade, this means use of corn-based packaging can solve more than one waste issue. 

Here’s one example. Imagine the impact of a switch to corn-based packaging for meat trays. It will help the environment by cutting down on plastic pollution and preserving natural resources. This is because it can be recycled or composted instead of going into our landfills where they simply don't belong! The switch to Styrofoam alternatives like corn-based packaging for meat grocery stores will not only help the environment, but it could also cut down on waste storage, and support our agricultural industry. 

Starch-Based Loose-Fill Materials

Modern-day technology has come up with a new way to make packing peanuts, using materials from corn and other crops replacing a need for Styrofoam as the primary material, one that is not sustainable in the long run!

And it makes sense, you see. The purpose of Styrofoam packing peanuts is to protect products moving inside of a box during transportation.  This means you can either reduce the size of the box to fit your product perfectly, perhaps for some at an added expense, or choose non-toxic materials, and why wouldn’t you.

The use of petroleum-based loose-fill materials has been replaced with more eco-friendly alternatives such as corn-based packing peanuts which are made from a mixture including, but not limited to; corn cobs, grains, and sorghum plants.

Biodegradable Foam

There is a biodegradable Styrofoam alternative called Biodegradable foam. Made from material that comes directly out of sugar cane processing, this packaging works as an eco-friendly replacement for the popular synthetic resin used in most branded containers nowadays!

This alternative to Styrofoam degrades in a healthy manner which, honestly, the generation after us doesn’t want to deal with anymore.

If in your company you can switch to biodegradable packaging products, then switch to compostable alternatives such as corn or sugar instead! The increased use of sustainable materials can reduce your carbon footprint while still providing you with quality of use.

Molded Fiber or Molded Pulp

Try molded fiber or molded pulp products for your shipment needs! 

Molded fiber or pulp is the more environmentally-friendly alternative to polystyrene wine boxes. It’s flexible, durable, and doesn't contain any harmful chemicals as styrenes do so it can be less expensive in terms of both production cost as well waste-related issues such as plastics pollution!

Molded fiber is made from 100% recycled paper which has similar insulation properties to those found in snowboarding boots. It also provides cushioning against external impacts like jostling at airports during transport; however, it uses more energy than mold pulp because of its higher density (which means less material needed).

There are a few additional considerations. If you're shipping wine, for example, it's important to know the difference between fiber-based packing materials and plastic-based ones. Molded Fiber or Pulp can be used for wines that need extra insulation; however, they do not have as much cushioning as polystyrene does so your shipment will probably feel heavier than usual.

Speaking for the environment, the choice is clear. Molded fiber or pulp, are paper products and a better choice to a plastic one.

Find our case study about Pulp Moulded Products Inc.at https://intengine.com/sustainable-packaging/leaders-of-change-case-studies-2

Paperboard

Paperboard is sturdy cardboard made from recycled paper. It is often used for food packaging and shipping boxes. When a sturdy product is required, this alternative to cardboard can make all of the difference. Many people don't realize that paperboard is made from recycled paper. In fact, it's one of the most recycled materials in the world. That's because it's sturdy and can be used for a variety of purposes, including providing a green alternative to foam board.

What is the difference between regular paper and paperboard? Both are made from recycled paper, but paperboard is much thicker and stronger than regular paper. Virgin fiber is used, usually made from wood chips or recycled paper, and ground into a pulp. This pulp is then formed into one large sheet and water is removed to create a web-like structure. This rough structure is passed into a cylindrical dryer to help even more water evaporate. Two steel rollers determine the thickness needed, making paperboard a versatile product you’ve likely seen on store shelves because it’s capable of holding coatings, should the manufacturer desire it.

This non plastic alternative is perfect for making boxes, packaging, and other shipping materials. 

Corrugated Fiberboard

Corrugated fiberboard is a type of cardboard that is made from layers of paper that are glued or bonded together. It is a strong and durable material that is often used for packaging products. Corrugated fiberboard can be recycled and is a sustainable option for packaging.

Corrugated fiberboard is made of one or more flat sheets of paper (called liners) and one or more fluted paperboards (corrugated boards). The liner and corrugated board are glued together with an adhesive to give the cardboard strength and stiffness. It is excellent for packaging materials, displays, and other industrial applications.

How to Reduce Your Use of Polystyrene Products

As mentioned, Polystyrene products are used extensively in many industries, but their production and disposal can have negative environmental impacts. If you are a business or procurement officer looking to reduce your use of Polystyrene, there are things you can do. Here are some tips on how to reduce your use of polystyrene products.

  1. Use reusable cups and containers for beverages and food instead of disposable ones. 
  2. Educate your employees and customers about the benefits of using less polystyrene. 
  3. Advocate for policy changes that would reduce the overall purchase.
  4. Set aside time to investigate the material alternatives for their suitability.
  5. Look to a consultant in sustainable packaging to support your discovery process and introduce alternatives to Styrofoam packaging. 
  6. Make it inconvenient. Create a company policy to remove petroleum-based plastics as single-use products.

As a business or organization, reducing your use of Polystyrene products is not only environmentally friendly, but can also save you money. By reducing your reliance on these products, you and your colleagues can feel proud of your positive example.

Public Opinion is Influencing Interest in Polystyrene Alternatives

We discussed how Styrofoam is a lightweight, porous insulation material made from ethylene-bis-styrene copolymer. It's commonly used in packaging and construction. 

Here’s a different perspective. In recent years, polystyrene has come under fire from environmentalists and others who advocate the material is harmful to the environment. As a result, many businesses have been looking for polystyrene alternatives to avoid this negative press.

On a policy level polystyrene used in food packaging and insulation have resulted in governmental actions. Some municipalities are now banning its use.

Although polystyrene is a versatile material that has been used in a variety of industries for many years, environmental awareness of its negative effects goes beyond consumer tolerance. This has increased the demand for polystyrene alternatives, to save the public image that can so easily shift market demand to competitors. 

Pros and Cons of Polystyrene, EPS, Styrofoam

By taking the time today to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each option, you can make an informed decision about which material to choose instead of being forced to make this switch at a later time due to lower customer demand for your products.

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Widely used

Cons

  • Coming under fire by environmentally aware consumers
  • Government restrictions
  • Ecosystem toxicity
  • Questionable ties to human health

What we know about alternatives

  • Biodegradable materials are not harmful
  • Reduced entry into landfills
  • Renewable products from corn, sugar, soy applications are growing
  • Paper options can be just as versatile

If you're like most business owners, you're always looking for ways to save money and Styrofoam is likely one of the things on your list. But before you decide to do the research and switch to a sustainable alternative, it's important to learn more about the options available to you. 

Check out these certifications to begin.

Eco-friendly labels on packaging

The following are examples of the most recognizable eco-friendly labels on packaging and sustainable packaging certifications:

Conclusion

Styrofoam made from polystyrene are dangerous products for both people and the environment. There are many eco-friendly alternatives to polystyrene that can be used in its place. You can reduce your use of polystyrene products by making the choice to invest in alternatives.

If you are interested in more information about Sustainable Packaging you will enjoy Intengine's whitepaper at https://intengine.com/sustainable-packaging/overview

Polystyrene is a type of plastic that can be found in many products we use every day, from cups and plates to packaging materials. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most harmful plastics for both people and the environment. In this post, we’ve outlined some of the dangers of polystyrene as well as eco-friendly alternatives. We hope you find this information helpful and will take steps to reduce your use of polystyrene products and reach out to the businesses on Intengine to help guide you. 

Additional Reading

More Alternatives to Styrofoam as part of Intengine's Whitepaper on Sustainable Packaging

"Sustainable packaging is more than a buzzword. One of the major global environmental concerns is the increasing amounts of solid waste, of which packaging constitutes a considerable share. The negative impact of single-use packaging on the environment and biodiversity over the past few decades has pushed businesses to explore and embrace ‘eco-friendly’ packaging. As consumer demands and regulatory requirements multiply, impact packaging is no longer an option – it is a necessity!" - https://intengine.com/sustainable-packaging/overview

Studies about Polystyrene by the National Library of Medicine

"Plastics have transformed everyday life; usage is increasing and annual production is likely to exceed 300 million tonnes by 2010. In this concluding paper to the Theme Issue on Plastics, the Environment and Human Health, we synthesize current understanding of the benefits and concerns surrounding the use of plastics and look to future priorities, challenges and opportunities." https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873021

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Industry & Packaging

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