expanded polystyrene food container

Expanded Polystyrene Foam: Should It Be Banned?

expanded-polystyrene-food-containerThis month, New York City’s ban on single use Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPS) products and packaging comes into effect. The ban covers take out containers, food trays, cups, bowls plates and loose fill packaging nuts. New York City and New York State share a formidable reputation for trailblazing bans on foods, substances and practices they consider dangerous. Memorable bans in recent memory include trans fats, oversize sodas, microbeads and fracking. Their “whacky” new bans are typically met with a mix of indignation from industry bodies and bemusement from world media. Yet where New York goes, the rest of the world frequently follows. For example, New York was the first to outlaw smoking in public places and the use of mobile phones while driving. So what is it about EPS that’s lead to a crackdown on its use? Is it really so bad and should we be thinking of following suit here in Australia?

What is Expanded Polystyrene Foam?

Polystyrene is a plastic resin derived from crude oil. Polystyrene foam is made by steaming tiny beads of the resin with petrochemical gasses and solvents until it expands to many times the original volume. These expanded beads are then moulded and steamed again until they fuse together into the required shape. The finished product is 95% air and as such, it’s a both a great insulating material and extremely light. And because it’s also cheap it’s understandably popular with businesses.

Environmental Impacts

In comparison to other plastics which we consume in much higher volumes, e.g. polyethylene terepthalate PET (plastic bottles) and polyethylene (plastic bags), Expanded Polystyrene Foam is far more problematic in the environment. EPS is ultra light and flakes very easily. Consequently, it’s extremely mobile once discarded. Large quantities escape from landfill and waste bins and travel long distances, fragmenting as it travels. To make matters worse, EPS does not break down in the environment, yet has chemically absorbent properties. As it moves around it absorbs and concentrates toxins over time. And because it’s so buoyant, vast quantities of EPS find their way into waterways and the oceans via urban runoff, where it accumulates. Once in the oceans, marine life mistakes the toxic EPS flakes for food, ingesting it into the food chain and causing chronic and widespread damage.

EPS Can’t Be Recycled

One of the major headaches associated with EPS is that most of it is non-recyclable. That is, no cost effective, large scale means of recycling exists. Once expanded it can’t be re-moulded and there is no market for used EPS. The only options for waste disposal at the municipal level are burning and landfill, but neither is ideal. As landfill it takes up a disproportionate amount of space because of its expanded size. As a fuel for incinerator powered generators its low density makes it inefficient. Being 95% air, it takes up a disproportionate amount of furnace space for the energy it releases. And because it’s so bulky it’s expensive to transport.

Alternatives to EPS

There’s a growing number of great alternatives to Expanded Polystyrene Foam, most of which are paper / cellulose based. Another alternative gaining ground is range of plastics made from corn. Polylactic Acid (PLA) plastics are 100% degradable, made from renewable sources and require far less energy to manufacture. There’s even a range of loose fill packaging beans made from popcorn. And because corn based packaging is renewable and sustainable, US manufacturers using PLA packaging materials are finding it helps sales. Another exciting high tech newcomer is a range of lightweight packaging made from mycelium. Mycelium is a soft, spongy organism, but its strands can be rapidly grown into rigid intertwining structures over a substrate of agricultural waste. Mycelium is the vegetative part of fungus. We’re more familiar with mushrooms, which are the fruiting bodies of mycelium.


As a single use, non-degradable packaging material, EPS is harmful to the environment, non-recyclable and unsustainable. And with so many renewable / recyclable alternatives out there it’s hard to justify its continued use. In fact, New York City is not the first US city to ban EPS. Bans are also in place in San Francisco, Washington DC, Portland and Seattle. Elsewhere, Manila, Toronto, and Paris have also banned EPS. As always, businesses faced with change will fear the consequences of making a switch. Renewable alternatives may cost a bit more or require slightly different handling and packaging techniques. But on the plus side, they’ll gain sustainable packaging, which can only help make products more marketable in the long run. As buyers looking to clean up our supply chains, our suppliers’ packaging is an obvious point to check. In choosing to buy or reject EPS packaged products we’re making decisions that will effect the environment for centuries to come.
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