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What is Styrofoam?
Styrofoam is the trademark name for polystyrene foam, created by the Dow Chemical Company. It has remarkable insulation properties, and is very lightweight. This has made Styrofoam the valuable and widely-used product that it is today. It is used in anything from the shipping of technology products to beverage insulation. It is so prevalent in modern products that the trademarked name has become a generic term in the American-English language.
Polystyrene is a practical, simple solution for many modern needs, but what about the effect on the environment? Why isn't Styrofoam recycled? Is there an eco-friendly way to dispose of Styrofoam?
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The primary environmental concern of polystyrene is the main chemical component of the material — styrene. It is this compound that makes not only the disposal of Styrofoam such a problem, but also the production process. What is so terrible about styrene? For the people who work with it, there are known health risks. Prolonged exposure can lead to irritation of the skin and respiratory tract. Over time the central nervous system can be affected as well, potentially leading to health problems such as depression, weakness, and fatigue.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers styrene as a possible carcinogen. The production of polystyrene is one of the major creators of hazardous waste, being ranked fifth by the EPA in the past. Styrene and non-sustainable petroleum are combined to form a convenient yet environmentally-detrimental material. This manufacturing affects the well-being of the workers, of the people living nearby the polluted air, and the waste stream which is injected with chemical-infused liquid and solid waste. This is only the concern with the production of Styrofoam. Disposal only continues the exposure of toxins to the environment.
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Styrofoam as Waste
In the waste stream, Styrofoam takes an incredibly long time to break down; the material inevitably becomes part of the plastics which take up nearly one-third of all landfill space. Polystyrene not only takes up space, but it frequently ends up as a choking hazard for animals, who mistake foam for chunks of food. Because of the eco-hazard, some areas have completely banned polystyrene foam, such as Portland, Oregon and Taiwan.
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The reason that Styrofoam isn't recycled in most cases is that specific technology and effort is needed to break it down. With a small market and desire for recycled polystyrene, only some recycling facilities will dispose of Styrofoam. It can and should be recycled however, even though curbside pick-ups do not accept it as a recyclable material.
To find a company who will take used polystyrene, search the Earth 911 website, which offers information on recycling needs. Type in polystyrene and your location for a listing of nearby facilities where you can drop-off your foam waste. The Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers will also accept the material. The best long-term solution for the Styrofoam problem is not to use it. Look for more eco-friendly packaging and insulation materials. Do not buy styrofoam cups or packaging. If you purchase a product, such as a computer or stereo, which is boxed with polystyrene foam, make the effort to mail-in or drop-off the material and dispose of it properly. Then, take the extra step to contact the company who is still using Styrofoam on a regular basis, and kindly let them know how much a green packaging alternative would be appreciated.
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Earth Resource Foundation <http://www.earthresource.org/campaigns/capp/capp-styrofoam.html>
Green Living Tips <http://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/218/1/Recycling-styrofoam.html>
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photo by: Complexify (CC/flickr) <http://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/218/1/Recycling-styrofoam.html>