Suffolk County in Long Island was the first US jurisdiction to institute a ban on polystyrene food packaging in 1988. From 1988 to 2000, a handful of other cities followed suit, implementing their own version of legislation in order to reduce waste and quell fears over toxic chemicals leaching into the environment. Now 25 years later, more than 100 cities in the US have banned polystyrene food packaging, with the list growing monthly.
Clearly the food industry is in the midst of a shift away from polystyrene and towards more eco-friendly forms of packaging, but what exactly is fuelling this trend in the first place and what new materials are emerging to fill the void that is being left behind?
The Shift Towards Eco-Friendly Materials
Fuelled by concern over climate change and the increasing impacts of pollution, as dramatically evidenced by the Pacific Trash Gyre, consumers are beginning to demand eco-friendly products as a way to encourage businesses to begin considering their environmental footprint and ultimately deal with the problem. Businesses that want to demonstrate that they care about our planet and its future realize they must begin incorporating sustainable principles into their business models to remain relevant in today’s world and establish meaningful relationships with consumers.
This need for an environmental component is especially apparent in the restaurant and retail food industry, which is one of the largest contributors to landfill waste in the US and not coincidentally one of the primary markets for Polystyrene packaging.
Why Polystyrene is Being Banned
Polystyrene, often referred to as “Styrofoam”, is a plastic material derived from petrochemicals. It is cheap to produce, durable and easy to form into a variety of shapes, making it an appealing material for food packaging.
However, the widespread use of polystyrene presents a number of problems for both human health and the environment. A number of studies have suggested that chemicals from polystyrene food packaging can leach into foods and drinks. Additionally, the creation and subsequent disposal of polystyrene has a number of negative environmental impacts. These include contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, landfill waste, the leaching of chemicals into the environment, and contributing to the loss of biodiversity.
For these reasons, many jurisdictions have moved towards banning the use of polystyrene.
The Dangers of Polystyrene and Its Effects on the Environment
A brief look at the numerous studies conducted on polystyrene reveals that it poses some serious threats to the environment.
One of the biggest problems with Styrofoam is that it is non-biodegradable on human timescales meaning It does not breakdown for hundreds, if not thousands of years, depending on disposal conditions. For a product that is used for only a few minutes or hours at most, this is an incredibly long-time to remain in the environment. Even when disposed of properly, its extremely lightweight allows it to be swept up easily by winds and fly out of landfills and trashcans into the environment, where it eventually ends up in waterways and oceans.
One California study found that a minimum of 162 marine species including most seabirds were reported to have consumed plastics and other litter including Styrofoam. The consumption of polystyrene can lead to health complications in animals, including death, and Styrofoam goods are frequently found in the stomachs of dead seabirds, fish and other marine wildlife.
The Polystyrene Ban Sweeps the Nation and Heads Out Into the World
Recent news out of Portland reveals that the city is on the verge of imposing a ban on polystyrene foam containers. The proposed ban passed the Transportation, Sustainability, and Energy committee with a vote of 2-1. It will now go to the Portland city council for the final vote.
Mayor Bloomberg and his council in New York have voiced support over instituting a similar ban and opposition towards polystyrene foam is gaining traction in Chicago. Furthermore, over a hundred other cities in the US have already passed similar legislation, including Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle, just to name a few.
Outside of the US, polystyrene bans have been imposed in cities all over the world. Some of these include Paris, Toronto, and Muntinlupa in the Philippines.
Alternatives to Polystyrene: Plant Fiber Packaging Leads the Way Forward
The shift away from polystyrene has seen an increasingly large amount of businesses begin to adopt more sustainable forms of packaging such as those made from plant fibers. Only a few short years ago plant fiber packaging was in its early stages of development, but it has now become a versatile, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly food and retail packaging option for eco-minded consumers and businesses.
One of the key reasons plant-fibre packaging is so appealing is that it is derived from plant materials that naturally breakdown in the environment. In fact, if disposed of properly, plant-fibre packaging is completely zero-waste. The end product is reintegrated into the environment via composting or recycling and can once again become a nutrient for other natural processes since it is entirely biodegradable.
What the Future Holds for the Food Packaging Industry
With hundreds of jurisdictions in the US imposing bans on hazardous materials to date and consumers voluntarily looking for greener alternatives, polystyrene’s days as king of the food packaging world are slowly ending. Thankfully, there are legitimate, sustainable alternatives to polystyrene that leave a lot to be optimistic about.
Be Green Packaging LLC. manufactures and distributes Cradle to Cradle Certifiedcm, tree-free, and biodegradable packaging for the food service and consumer markets. The company designs and engineers products made from annually renewable plant fibers that are safe for people and healthy for the planet. For more information about the company, please visit www.begreenpackaging.com