While it has many uses, Styrofoam’s negative impact on the environment is apparent. Despite this, several million tons of Styrofoam is produced every year. Over the last few decades, there have been multiple debates about whether Styrofoam is biodegradable or not. It has sparked numerous reports, prompting researchers to unpack just how long it takes for Styrofoam to decompose, if ever. Estimates vary from a few years to a million years, incorporating various environmental conditions into each scenario.
Why is Styrofoam bad? Does it ever decompose? Let’s unpack the answers, understanding the true impact as much as possible.
What is Styrofoam?
You’ve definitely come across Styrofoam in your day-to-day life. It’s become so accepted as an everyday product that people forget to question its actual makeup.
Styrofoam is the colloquial name used for expanded polystyrene (EPS). In short, it’s a petroleum-based plastic manufactured from a styrene monomer using the polymerization process. Initially, this forms the translucent spherical beads we know as polystyrene. They’re about the size of a sugar granule. These granules, called nurdles, often make their way into our natural ecosystems wreaking havoc on the environment even in their pre-production state. For pellets that stay in the production process, we then add a toxic combination of low heat, steam, and pentane gas to create the actual expansion, giving us Styrofoam.
From start to finish, Styrofoam production relies on harsh chemicals. When you look at it this way, it makes perfect sense that it harms our environment.
How long does it take Styrofoam to decompose?
One of Styrofoam’s benefits is its strength and stability. It’s commonly used for food storage because it can repel water, resist acids, bases, salts, and other corrosive substances. It doesn’t grow mold or bacteria, and it can stay sanitary in storage. Styrofoam is renowned for its long shelf life, which is precisely the problem.
Because it is so chemically stable, once it’s in the environment, it will be there for generations in some shape or form. The Society of Environmental Journalists states that it requires about 500 years to decompose, and even then, we’re not sure what that really means.
While it resists most chemicals, Styrofoam’s one weakness is sunlight. In a process called photodegradation, requiring consistent exposure to sunlight, Styrofoam does start to break down, eventually forming a powdery substance. Unfortunately, many people mistake this process for decomposition or biodegradation. It’s far from that. As the Styrofoam becomes excessively hot, tiny amounts of styrene seep out of the plastic, contaminating the surrounding area. That’s where the real cost of Styrofoam comes into play.
These tiny fragments disperse into the environment, whether it’s into our soil or our oceans. Given its lightweight, Styrofoam can also travel vast distances, often accumulating in our waterways or shorelines. Unfortunately, much of it sinks to the bottom of the sea, polluting the actual seabed too. When fish eat these toxic materials, the chemicals bioaccumulate, making them harmful to the people who then consume the fish.
What’s worse is the Styrofoam shielded from the sunlight in our jam-packed landfills. It remains in the same state until it eventually reaches the light, only delaying the inevitable toxicity. Moreover, its porous nature allows it to absorb other carcinogenic pollutants, only contributing to the dangers of Styrofoam.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that Styrofoam doesn’t decompose. Yes, it breaks down into a state we can no longer see with the naked eye, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.
Is Styrofoam bad for the environment?
We now know that Styrofoam is unlikely to decompose properly, only breaking down into smaller fragments. The fact that it never truly disappears is absolutely “bad” for the environment, but what are the other impacts to be aware of?
It’s a Possible Carcinogen
In 2002 The International Agency for Research on Cancer established that styrene, one of Styrofoam’s core elements, was a possible human carcinogen. In 2014, the National Toxicological Program report confirmed this, linking styrene to leukemia and lymphoma cancer. To be considered a carcinogen, a substance has to have the ability to damage or disrupt cellular metabolic processes. From a human perspective, this dramatically affects our day-to-day health.
2 . Air Pollution From The Production Process
The chemicals used in the manufacturing process for Styrofoam are toxic, contributing to air pollution and putting the workers at risk. One of the main ingredients in Styrofoam is Benzene which is a volatile organic compound classified as a key pollutant by the EPA.
As if to rub salt in the wound, Styrofoam is made with petroleum, a non-sustainable resource. Petroleum production creates its own devastation in air pollution, only adding fuel to the fire.
The Life Cycle Initiative
As we can see from the harmful elements of Styrofoam production from start to finish, understanding a product’s full lifecycle is critical. In 2002, UNEP joined forces with the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) to launch an international partnership designed to put life cycle thinking into practice. The Life Cycle Initiative focuses on a framework of programs that demand sustainable consumption and production patterns. It’s about spreading the idea of life cycle thinking and understanding the true impact a product has for years to come.
That’s where Cruz Foam comes in with its natural Styrofoam alternative. Cruz Foam’s fully-compostable products are derived from all naturally occurring materials. Aptly described as “circular materials,” they genuinely model the ethos of life cycle thinking that’s paramount in today’s society. If this had been a priority in the past, Styrofoam would never have existed.
While the jury may be out on an exact amount of time, the unsettling truth is that Styrofoam doesn’t decompose. It’s not a question about how long it takes but rather understanding just how dangerous the cycle of Styrofoam is. While sustainable material providers such as Cruz Foam have made positive advancements in this space, more businesses must start to harness life cycle thinking. We have to start operating beyond the here and now, understanding the actual timeline for the products we use in our day-to-day life.