Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Demise of Polystyrene- Exit of another plastic material

Any news that spell discouraging plastics is a welcome one and the pioneering efforts in some American communities to ban use of the ubiquitous polystyrene material deserve a big applause. More than consideration of safety when used for packing foods, it is environmental pollution potential of this plastic material that is pushing the "ban polystyrene" movements in some countries. Polystyrene, popularly known as Styrofoam, is an expended product with very low bulk density and therefore can pollute wide areas due to wind, especially if they are smaller in size. One of the most commonly used insulating materials to keep food warm for longer time, there is no cheap substitute to polystyrene and hence there is considerable resistance to proposals coming from time to time from consumer activists and health conscious communities. While as an insulating material polystyrene may not be a health hazard unless used in direct contact with hot foods like soups or beverages, it definitely is an environmental hazard due to littering and careless disposal. Here is a take on this important issue which is currently being debated.  

"Technically, Styrofoam is a trademarked polystyrene product of Dow Chemical used in such applications as building insulation and craft products, not in food containers. For foes of polystyrene foam food containers, its problems are numerous. "Polystyrene foam doesn't break down easily, and it's easily dispersed by the wind," creating a litter problem in streets and local waterways, said Garth Schultz, city operations and environmental services manager for El Cerrito, Calif., where a ban will go into effect Jan. 1. Aside from the litter problem, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy pointed to concerns about the health affects of the chemicals that make up extruded polystyrene foam in justifying the ban. "You get takeout, the steam melts that lid," he said. "It's going into your food. Eventually, you're going to get sick from it." Opponents of such bans, such as the American Chemistry Council, have been pushing for community-wide polystyrene recycling programs in places like New York City as an alternative to proposed bans there. Restaurants themselves are increasingly turning a cold shoulder to polystyrene foam food containers. Fast-food titan McDonald's Corp. announced in September it would phase out foam cups at its 14,000 U.S. restaurants in favor of paper cups in coming months. It quit using polystyrene clamshell containers for burgers in 1990. And Dunkin' Brands Group, the parent company of the Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robins chains, said in its most-recent corporate social responsibility report that it is rolling out an in-store foam cup recycling program at all its locations, but that it hopes to introduce an alternative cup within two to three years."

A redeeming feature of this problem is that some enlightened industry has already put in place a program to shun polystyrene for packing their products realizing the dangers inherent in a potential consumer backlash in future. While recycling may be an option to cut down on pollution by this plastic material, it may be impractical to organize collection on a large scale for centralized recycling operations. Some reports indicate that local communities and some restaurants are contemplating installing recycling projects locally to tackle the problem more effectively in stead of waiting for government action. A vexing question concerns the need of non-food industries for a packing material that can provide impact resistance of their products during handling and transportation and it may not be practical to ban polystyrene only in food industry while allowing it for others. But corrugated multi-ply paper boards are increasingly being used by industries substituting polystyrene while molded plastics and bubble formed plastics also can also are used in many cases. It is a question of time before the world is reconciled to a situation where plastics will not be around, especially non-biodegradable versions which dominate to day.    


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