Whilst it might seem like a useful multi-purpose product, today I want to talk about the problem with polystyrene for our planet. For such an innocuous looking, lightweight product polystyrene sure does pack an environmental punch! Thankfully there are some good alternatives these days!
The issue in numbers
Polystyrene – also known as styrofoam – is a petroleum based plastic used in all kinds of products, from cups and trays to insulation, packaging, DVD cases and more. Most of the items made from polystyrene are designed to be single use. Over 18,000 tonnes of single use polystyrene is created in Australia every year! Enough styrofoam cups are used in Australia each year to circle the planet 5 times over, which is fairly frightening to think about.
So, what’s the problem with polystyrene?
There are quite a few problems with polystyrene, starting with the fact it is made out of petroleum, with is a non-renewable, heavily polluting substance. It is also an energy intensive product to make, and results in air and water pollution, as well as creating hazardous waste. That is enough to avoid using it, but that’s also on the start of the problems!
The other key problem with polystyrene is that it is incredibly hard to dispose of. It is bulky and non-biodegradable, which means it takes up a vast amount of space in our landfill. It’s also very light and breaks down into little pieces, which means it can be easily distributed across the environment. It is regularly one of the most collected waste items at clean up events, and is damaging animals when they ingest it.
What are the alternatives?
Thankfully most polystyrene products have a much more environmentally friendly alternative. This can be as simple as getting your meat from a butcher rather than on a styrofoam tray at the supermarket, or reusable mugs rather than polystyrene cups. Refusing over-packaged products is an excellent start, and then choosing non-polystyrene packaging is a great next step.
For packaging, try recycled paper or bamboo which can be recycled or composted after use. Biodegradable packing peanuts are another excellent option. They will still protect the items you are shipping but without the environmental impact! Nowadays you can even find packaging made out of mushrooms!
What can you do to help?
The best step is avoiding as much polystyrene products as you possibly can! However, if you do end up with some disposing of it properly is important. Many polystyrene products are not able to be recycled, but any that you can recycle you definitely should. This generally can’t be done as part of your Council recycle bin, but there should be collection points around your suburb. For Melbourne folk, this website has a list of drop-off locations.