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Take out containers: Do you really need them?

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

Each year, Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups. Styrofoam (also known as polystyrene with a resin code PS #6) single-use cups and containers are extremely popular. Unfortunately, recycling this plastic foam isn’t an option in most places and landfilling it can lead to other problems. It can take up to 500 years for plastics to break down in a landfill, though it never decomposes. Whether it ends up in a landfill or an ocean, polystyrene has a negative effect on the environment and marine life.

If you have ever been to a park or beach on a busy day, you may have noticed significant litter throughout the area, with a large portion of it being plastic foam containers. This often happens because plastic is very light and can be easily blown off picnic tables or out of garbage cans. When polystyrene doesn’t make it to a landfill, it tends to end up in a body of water. This is especially dangerous for marine animals that may eat this plastic. This can lead to blockages and tears in their digestive systems, releasing toxins and killing the animal.

Polystyrene is difficult to recycle because it can’t be made into new containers. A piece of plastic foam may start off large at the beginning of the day, but crumble apart throughout the day, losing size and value. Recycling polystyrene is a rigorous process that requires multiple modes of transportation, because only a few recycling centers have the necessary equipment to handle this fragile material. Currently, less than 1 percent of all plastic foam is being recycled. That means the rest is either floating in the ocean, filling landfills or cluttering green space. This is not the only potential negative effect caused by polystyrene.

According to Northern Illinois University, hot foods, oily foods, acids and alcohol cause foam food containers to partially break down, leaching styrene into whatever food the container is holding. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added styrene, a synthetic compound in polystyrene, to its list of known or possible carcinogens. Carcinogens are chemicals and biological agents that may put people at increased risk for cancer.

Since plastic foam is so difficult to recycle and can have such negative effects, how do we limit the amount of this plastic we use? One straightforward way is to use fewer take out containers. The simple alternative to take out containers would be to eat directly at the restaurant. You could also bring your own reusable container for any leftovers. However, it’s not always feasible to carry a reusable container around with you.

If you have to take food home and don’t have your own container, ask the restaurant if they have a recyclable or reusable container option. It doesn’t hurt to ask. It may seem like you’re creating a hassle for the worker, but really you are just being a responsible citizen. If you work or dine somewhere that still uses plastic foam containers, you could also suggest that they consider switching over to recyclable or reusable containers.

New York City, the largest city in the U.S., has enacted a ban on plastic foam in restaurants and businesses. If a city as large as New York City can work without polystyrene, less populated areas can too! While single use plastic containers can’t be banned in Wisconsin, we can still make a difference by using recyclable, compostable or reusable containers. Making the effort to cut down on plastic foam now means the environment and marine life will be alive to thank you later.

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