Styrofoam, a brand-name product widely used in the fabrication of disposable cups, plates and a broad array of other products, has been at the center of a controversy for a number of years. Environmentalists, worried about the flooding of landfills with materials like Styrofoam that are not biodegradable, have crossed swords with those who manufacture or routinely use such materials and don't want to see them withdrawn from the market.


This mountain of Styrofoam containers was photographed outside a Tokyo fish market.
This mountain of Styrofoam containers was photographed outside a Tokyo fish market.

Styrofoam, or foamed polystyrene, has been around since the early 1940s and was accidentally created by research chemist Ray McIntire, who was trying to make a flexible material to be used in the manufacture of electrical insulators. An article in Land & Water, a newsletter published by the University of Illinois Extension Service, explains that McIntire, a Dow Chemical employee, discovered that foamed polystyrene---a product that is 95 percent air---could be created by "blowing gases into heated polystyrene."


The general public tends to associate Styrofoam with the products such as cups and plates, as well as insulating coolers, restaurant take-out containers and packaging materials. Other products include insulating materials for construction, flotation devices and materials used in arts and crafts.


Styrofoam competes with paper products for use in a number of its most popular applications. Its champions claim that the manufacture of foamed polystyrene is no more damaging to the environment than the processes used to make paper. Foamed polystyrene is inexpensive to make and thus inexpensive to buy. The Land & Water article also points out that its use in disposable cups and plates provides a "sanitary product for one-time food and beverage use."


Environmentalists and other opponents of Styrofoam are quick to point out that foamed polystyrene is produced using petroleum products, a nonrenewable resource already in limited supply. Even more significantly as far as the environment is concerned, Styrofoam is nonbiodegradable, meaning that it cannot be broken down by the activity of living organisms. Also cited as a potential drawback is the uncertainty about the long-term health effects of chronic exposure to Styrofoam products, particularly those used in the food services industry.

Styrofoam Bans

Underlining the controversy over Styrofoam are the bans---both in effect and proposed---on its use for selected applications. Several cities in California, long a pioneer in environmental causes, have banned the use of Styrofoam in restaurant take-out containers. San Francisco enacted such a ban in 2007, and more than a score of other California cities have followed suit. Several other cities outside California have enacted similar bans, and the Hawaiian county of Maui has a ban scheduled to take effect in 2011.