MNS Langkawi's Blog

Persatuan Pencinta Alam Malaysia

Perils of Polystyrene

Thank goodness this isn’t Langkawi!

There are two kinds of Polystyrene Foams:

  1. Expandable Polystyrene – EPS usually use as packaging for many kind of products such as television, electrical appliances, helmets, ice boxes, sheet foam and block foam for road construction.
  2. Extruded Polystyrene – XPS which use to produce food tray and food boxes.

A little history lesson!

McDonald’s used to snuggle its Big Macs and other burgers in these foam clam shells as if they were fine cut-glass vases. With fast food’s far reach, McDonald’s became the largest single user of polystyrene foam, selling to 22 million customers each day.

At the end of the 1980s, a decade when excess was celebrated, four cities in the U.S. banned McDonald’s from using polystyrene foam in their cities. There was resistance and redirection by McDonald’s, but by late in 1990, Mickey D’s buckled under the pressure of the masses and changed its ways.

At the time, because there was pending legislation in 49 of 50 states, all the fast food chains followed suit, banning polystyrene and switching to paper packaging. Even the U.S. Park Service and the Coast Guard had banned foam containers.

That was the end, right?

Unfortunately, no. Less than 20 years later, we have forgotten the lessons learned from the efforts that led to an almost total elimination of polystyrene from touching our foods.

Polystyrene, as we most commonly see it, is expanded polystyrene, or EPS. A blowing agent is added to polystyrene pellets to make it moldable. Unfortunately, EPS is manufactured from refined petroleum and derived from styrene, which is a known neurotoxin. The manufacturing process produces several wastes, such as ethylene and benzene, which are known to the EPA to cause cancer. EPS foam reacts and leaches chemicals when it comes in contact with; hot foods (like take-out, hot chocolate and coffee), acid foods (like lemon and orange), those with Vitamin A and anything that is microwaved. Do I need to go on?!

And yet, we continue to see EPS foam cups, EPS foam meat trays and EPS foam take-out boxes. Malaysia alone produces more than 400,000 tons of it. Even our children, in Langkawi’s schools, are exposed to this toxic material when they eat school lunches on EPS foam food trays.

If you can get past the chemicals leaching into our food, many in the industry will say that EPS can be recycled. In fact, if you see a Number 6 on the bottom, it can recycled. However, most don’t, because of the cost. EPS has a negative scrap value, at about RM10,000 a ton, compared with glass, which is about RM300 a ton.

Chemists are looking at adding microbes to polystyrene to make it more bio-degradable, but it’s a very bad deal right now. The simple fact is, if you are using EPS foam and not recycling it, it will end up in the landfill.

In fact, sadly, those 22 million containers a day thrown out by McDonald’s consumers are still in the landfills. Most experts say it will take hundreds or a thousand years for EPS foam to break down — long past the lives of our children’s great-grandchildren.

Longterm or Delayed Health Effects

  • Neurotoxin Can harm the brain and central nervous system.
  • Suspected Endocrine Disruptor May interfere with, mimic or block hormones.
  • If inhaled at high concentrations, it can cause nervous system effects such as depression, concentration problems, muscle weakness, fatigue, and nausea.
  • Chronic occupational exposures have caused eye problems.
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation if inhaled.
  • In test animals, it has caused damage to the liver, kidneys, brain, and lungs when ingested.

If you haven’t already guessed it, I avoid EPS foam at all costs. In our house, the ubiquitous polystyrene is called “bad styrofoam.”

For a change: Recycle your foam meat trays, foam egg cartons and foam coffee cups.

To make a difference: Don’t buy foam cups or plates for your events. Buy eggs that are in cardboard containers.

To make a stand: Avoid polystyrene at all costs, for your health and that of the planet. If you refuse to use it, businesses will get the hint!

Apart from recycling by melting and compacting, there are many ways to manage the EPS waste as detailed below:

  • Crush in to small particles and mix with soil. Foam waste will improve ventilation in the soil, organic substances in the soil will become humus more readily.
  • Mixing the crushed beads with cement to reduce the weight and increase insulation properties in construction.
  • Burning EPS requires no additional fuel, in fact EPS can replace the fuel normally required for combustion, l kg of EPS saves 1 kg = 1.2 – 1.4 Litre of fuel oil.

Baskaran Kosthi
23rd November 2009

Filed under: Pollution

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Malaysian Nature Society Langkawi

Malaysian Nature Society Langkawi

MNS Manifesto

MNS mission is to promote the study, appreciation, conservation and protection of Malaysia’s natural heritage, focusing on biological diversity and sustainable developments.

MNS Langkawi Committee 2013-2014

Chairman: Mr.Eric Sinnaya
Vice Chairman: Mr.Vijayndran Muniandy
Secretary: Ms.Daisy Samuel
Treasurer: Mr.M.Suresh Kumar Ratnani
Committee Member: Mr Irshad Mobarak, Dato Alexander Issac, Tun Sarimah Mohd Sharif, Mr Leong Ah Min,
Mr Teoh Cheng Kung, Mr Borhan Hamid.

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