A Call for Sustainable Food Packaging

March 1, 2016

Why We're Waging a War on Polystyrene Foam

Our fast-paced lifestyle calls for throw-away convenience in the form of single-use plastic bottles, bags, utensils, and take-out food boxes. Take-out is commonly packaged in polystyrene foam, the most prevalent type of plastic polluting NY and NJ waterways, according to NY/NJ Baykeeper's NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Plastic Collection Report.

New Yorkers, alone, use nearly 30,000 tons of foam each year, but at what cost to our environment?

Behold, the various threats posed by polystyrene foam:

  1. Polystyrene cannot be recycled, so products are filling up landfills fast.
  2. You guessed it, polystyrene is NOT biodegradable. It is a petroleum-based plastic, taking 500 years to decompose, according to Washington University
  3. To-go boxes and coffee cups can be poisoning you. The foam contains toxins like Styrene and Benzene, suspected carcinogens. The heat from food and drink can leach toxins into food and be absorbed into the human bloodstream.
  4. Due to littering, improper waste management, and stormwater runoff, foam finds its way to our waterways leaching toxins and acting as a sponge for other toxins already present in the water.
  5. Since polystyrene is a brittle type of plastic, it can break apart into tiny pieces in the aquatic environment. Fish and birds can mistake these micro-particles for food, eating not only the plastic but the toxins that accompany them. Since the foam is inorganic, it can make a fish or bird feel full, and they may get sick or starve to death.


The solution to reducing polystyrene foam's impact on our  environment is to simply stop using single-use plastics.

There is a major effort in the NY-NJ region to eliminate polystyrene foam products from the food service industry. NY/NJ Baykeeper was one of 50 organizations to urge NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio to take immediate action and ban such products. Click here to view the letter sent to the Mayor on February 28, 2016. NYC had passed a polystyrene ban in 2015, but it was overturned to appease big business (Dart Container Company). The truth of the matter is that we should not be using disposable products that are not only toxic but are non-biodegradable. An example of a sustainable alternative is compostable paper.

You can help by eliminating polystyrene foam and other single-use plastics from your everyday life. Bring your own coffee cup and ask for take-out to be packaged in aluminum foil if a biodegradable option is not available. Click here for more plastic-free tips.

Sandra Meola

Communications and Outreach Associate

[email protected]