The Expanded Polystyrene Foam (Styrofoam) Debate: To Ban or Not to Ban

by Jenny Knodell, IQS Editor

Jenny Knodell Author Pic

Expanded polystyrene foam—we’ve all used it hundreds of times. When you go out to eat and can’t finish the meal, or order takeout food, chances are you carry your meal in a container made of this inexpensive but non biodegradable foam material. Commonly referred to as Styrofoam, which is actually a brand name belonging to Dow Chemical, EPS is used worldwide by restaurants of every price range. In the last couple years, a debate has begun about whether or not to ban EPS from use as disposable food and beverage containers altogether. Over 100 cities, including San Francisco (which got the ball rolling) have instated a city-wide ban on all polystyrene foam. This trend is great news on the environmental front, but bad for struggling businesses. So, which side are you on? Let’s take a closer look at each argument.

Styrofoam Container
The common EPS to-go container.


EPS is composed of 97% air, and uses very little material. It exhibits a great strength-to-weight ratio and is by far the least expensive material to use for disposable food containers. It’s also extremely resistant to mold, mildew and bacterial growth, making it the safest material to contain edible products. It also has some other great uses—EPS is placed underneath roads and other structures to prevent soil disturbances due to freezing and thawing during the winter, which reduces potholes. It is also the best foam padding material to keep fragile items safe during transit.

Talk of these restrictions have many businesses worried—implementing a ban on the least expensive to-go material at the present state of the economy could spell trouble for many restaurants, both small and large. They would be forced to use more expensive materials like coated cardboard or pay a hefty fine, and so many struggling businesses are already barely staying afloat and open. The ban could potentially lead to even more businesses closing their doors. As well, this could be a huge blow to foam fabricating companies who rely on the demand for EPS in the restaurant business. There are also a few problems with alternative foam materials that are biodegradable—they melt in the microwave and tend to warp when hot food is placed on them.

Anti-Styrofoam Equipment Anti-Styrofoam Equipment
Images courtesy of American Excelsior Company.


Regardless of the economic problems it may create, more and more people are for the city-wide bans of EPS. These to-go containers are disposable and used only one time, but they take hundreds of years to deteriorate. Our landfills are packed full with cups, doggy bags and plates made of Styrofoam. And since it is such a lightweight material, EPS products are easily blown around by the wind. These wind-traveling EPS containers are a major contributor to urban litter. They also pollute our waterways since they are unsinkable.

Unfortunately, these products are extremely difficult to recycle. Burning isn’t an option, since toxic gasses are released into the air. While recycling is possible, it is a difficult, costly and complicated process. If the Styrofoam is dirty, contaminated, has glue or staples, it is not eligible for recycling. Those products that are must undergo a lengthy cleaning, separating and shipping process. Canada is currently the only country with a recycling program that accepts any kind of EPS product. As of now, there doesn’t seem to be any fix-all solution. It seems, though, that more people are in favor of a Styrofoam ban. This is just one example of a growing trend: placing environmental issues above economic concerns.

Styrofoam Pollution
Landfills full of EPS containers.