Carbon Footprint, Styrofoam, and What You Need to Know

Carbon Footprint, Styrofoam, and What You Need to Know
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With many people focusing on reducing their carbon footprint, Styrofoam products have become a subject of debate. While a convenient product, it has some important effects we should consider when making choices as consumers.

Styrofoam or polystyrene: What’s the difference?

While Styrofoam has become a household name, it is a bit of a misnomer. Styrofoam is actually the trademark name for a material developed by Dow chemical company; it is often used for insulation of household pipes or craft floral arrangements. The foam of coffee cups or packing “peanuts” we commonly call “Styrofoam” is actually an offshoot of the trademark Styrofoam that has been expanded to about 95 percent air. Since the polystyrene that we commonly mistake for Styrofoam plays multiple roles besides insulation, our focus will be on this material.

Polystyrene Uses

Polystyrene finds the majority of its use in the food industry due to its insulating properties, strength, and virtual weightlessness. Products from coffee cups to take-away boxes, soup bowls, meat trays, and egg cartons are created from the puffed foam. Non-food uses of polystyrene include packing “peanuts” or the foam cushioning inside boxes for new electronics. Polystyrene is even found in some unexpected places such as CD cases and disposable utensils.

Your Carbon Footprint: How Polystyrene Makes it Larger

Polystyrene plays a dangerous role in our environment from its creation to its use. Polystyrene is derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, and creates a large amount of hazardous waste as a byproduct of its creation. Originally, polystyrene manufacturing also used chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), gases that break down the ozone layer. While the CFC’s once used to manufacture polystyrene have been phased out, the gases now being used are still greenhouse gases, meaning they increase the effect of global warming.

Many polystyrene containers are clearly labeled for recycling, so many consumers have trouble understanding how the substance can add to their carbon footprint. While polystyrene has some excellent uses and is, technically, recyclable, it is not a substance that biodegrades. That means that any polystyrene that makes its way into a landfill will stay there indefinitely, never breaking down and returning to the earth. Also, because of its bulk, many recyclers do not wish to deal with polystyrene foam, as it is not a profitable product to recycle. Foam is a contributing factor to the growth of landfills and waterway pollution, both of which are costly and energy intensive to solve. Since not all used polystyrene finds its way into the recycling bin, more oil must be harvested to create new foam to replace it, further degrading the environment.

While recycling polystyrene material can cushion the environmental blow of its use, alternatives are available that are created from renewable resources and biodegrade more readily. Making an effort to use those resources and avoid polystyrene ones can help to decrease your environmental impact.

Where Do we Go From Here?

In any discussion on carbon footprint, Styrofoam is bound to come up. While it has a lot of practical uses, its impact outweighs its convenience. The most important thing is to be educated on the difference between what we commonly call Styrofoam and the polystyrene that pervades our lives. Only then can you make the effort to avoid such products and make more educated choices.There are now many alternatives to help cut down on our use of polystyrene containers.


“Polystyrene Foam Report”

“Foam Cups/Food Containers”

“Is Styrofoam harmful for the environment?”

Photo credit: Flickr user ratterrell