Why Styrofoam Is So Bad for the Environment

May, 31, 2024

Why Styrofoam Is So Bad for the Environment

Everyone knows Styrofoam is bad for the planet, but do you know why? Here’s a hint: it’s not just about biodegradability. Styrofoam has become such an accepted everyday product that people often don’t understand how Styrofoam harms the environment.
Styrofoam is made from polystyrene, a petroleum-based plastic. It’s actually the trade name for polystyrene. Styrofoam is popular because of its lightweight, good insulation properties, and advantage as a packing material for shipping without adding weight. Unfortunately, for all of Styrofoam’s good points, data has shown that It also has harmful effects.Why Styrofoam Is So Bad for the Environment
On Human Health
Let’s take a look at the elements used to make Styrofoam. Styrene is the foundational ingredient used to make polystyrene. It is broadly used to manufacture plastics, resins, and rubber. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have established styrene as a possible human carcinogen. Those who work in styrene product manufacturing and are regularly exposed to high levels of styrene have experienced acute health effects, including the following:

  • Irritation of the skin
  • Irritation of the eyes
  • Irritation of the upper respiratory tract
  • Gastrointestinal effects

Chronic exposure to styrene leads to further complications, including effects on the nervous system. Symptoms of chronic exposure include those listed below:

  • Depression
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Minor effects on kidney function

Styrofoam containers are commonly used for take-out food, but chemicals can leach into it and contaminate that food, affecting human health and reproductive systems. This effect is further accentuated if food is reheated while still in the container. NEVER heat Styrofoam: permanently remove food from a cooking vessel for reheating.
On the Environment
Styrofoam is non-biodegradable and appears to last forever. It’s resistant to photolysis, or the breaking down of materials by photons originating from light. This, combined with Styrofoam floats, means that large amounts of polystyrene have accumulated along coastlines and waterways worldwide. It is considered a central component of marine debris.
Styrofoam can be recycled, but the market for recycled Styrofoam is diminishing. Many recycling say no to styro foamcompanies no longer will accept polystyrene products. Those that are recycled can be remanufactured into things like cafeteria trays or packing fillers.
Along with the health risks associated with the manufacture of polystyrene, air pollution is another concern. The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research has found 57 chemical byproducts released during the creation of Styrofoam. This pollutes the air and results in liquid and solid toxic waste that requires proper disposal. Another cause for concern is the brominated flame retardants used on Styrofoam products. Research suggests that these chemicals may have adverse environmental and health effects.
Styrofoam manufacturers also use hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), negatively impacting the ozone layer and climate change. HFCs are less detrimental to the ozone than chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used in the past to manufacture Styrofoam. Still, it is thought that the impact of HFCs on climate change is much more severe.
Lastly, Styrofoam is made from petroleum, a non-sustainable resource whose production creates heavy pollution and accelerates climate change.

Alternatives to Styrofoam
According to the EPA, Americans trash approximately 25 billion Styrofoam cups and take-out containers annually. Compostable food service packaging is now trendy as an “ecologically correct” option. Compostable containers are made using corn starch, palm fiber, peat fiber, and wheat stocks, and they can break down into soil-enriching compost.
Scientists hope to develop a suitable replacement for Styrofoam. Ecovative Design has created a line of products made from fungi and agricultural waste that are Styrofoam-like and aspire to be a more environmentally friendly replacement.
Several independent restaurants and food service brands worldwide, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, have shown how compostable containers can be a practical alternative. Several years ago, coffee retailer Tully’s began serving its popular beverages in compostable cups.
New York City, Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, and many more municipalities have announced that food service establishments, stores, and manufacturers may not possess, sell, or offer for use single-service Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam articles or polystyrene loose-fill packaging, such as “packing peanuts.”
You, too, can make eco-friendly choices to eliminate using Styrofoam. Could you send a letter to your state representative demanding a statewide ban on polystyrene products? World Centric has an excellent sample template letter you can use. Also, look for products that are

  • Manufactured from renewable resources
  • Contain biodegradable materials
  • Easily recycled
  • Reusable

Learn more about how to avoid chemicals in your day-to-day life here 

Fredrika Syren

Fredrika Syren is an environmental activist and writer. In 2016, she founded the website Green-Mom.com where she shared her family’s journey of living zero waste. She lives in San Diego, California with her husband James and their children Bella, Noah, and Liam. Fredrika and her family were recently featured in the documentary Zero Time to Waste. Fredrika is also the author of Zero Waste for Families - A Practical Guidebook (which you can buy on this site)


  1. Reply

    Linda Kline

    August 20, 2017

    I argued with a friend about Styrofoam and its effects on ground water in the earth,i.e. trash dumps.I need facts to back up my argument,any suggestions? Thank you for your consideration. Linda K

  2. Reply

    Michael Zarou

    October 15, 2017

    Hi Kim,
    Do you know if there are any efforts nationally to ban the use of styrofoam?

  3. Reply

    Concerned Citizen

    March 2, 2018

    Hi Kim
    Local school has had a broken dishwasher for over 3 years. They serve on Styrofoam trays everyday.
    And yes, a new dishwasher is costly, but the same district just had two playing fields dug up to be replaced with Castro turf.
    Trying to get the district to see how wrong this is. Sports teams are not more important than your health, or the environment.
    Suggestions or research that would help?

  4. Reply


    August 2, 2018

    It’s not as bad as you portray, nor are the benefits of paper significantly different. The less use of water is the most significant concern for our planet.

    • Reply

      Green Mom

      August 18, 2018

      one huge difference: paper will decompose while styrofoam will keep around polluting our planet for over 100 years.

  5. Reply

    Green Mom

    October 25, 2018

    Actually my post was posted first time almost 3 years ago and it has been bases as well copied many time over on other sites.

  6. Reply

    5th grader in WA

    March 27, 2019

    Hello Kim!
    My school uses Styrofoam trays almost every Friday. That’s why we started STP (Styrofoam Tray Petition) to help get rid of pollution.

  7. Reply

    John Ell

    October 7, 2019

    I searched this up because a group of 6 year old kids, outside my window, who have discovered styrofoam for the first time in their life are now spreading it everywhere pretending it’s snow.
    I don’t know where they got it from… I just heard them breaking it apart, I looked out my window, and tons of it was flying around the street. I can’t stop them because they probably won’t listen to me.

  8. Reply

    Fire heart

    April 4, 2022


    We should realy readuse styrofoam quickly.

  9. Reply

    Fire heart

    April 7, 2022


  10. Reply


    April 21, 2022

    Great site. Lots of helpful info here. I sending it to a few buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And naturally, thanks for your sweat!

  11. Reply

    Hydraulic Press Machine

    November 13, 2022

    Thanks a lot for sharing this with all of us you actually know what you are talking about! Bookmarked. Please also visit my website =). We could have a link exchange contract between us!

  12. Reply


    December 12, 2022

    Hi, Neat post. There is a problem with your web site in internet explorer, would test this?IE still is the market leader and a huge portion of people will miss your excellent writing due to this problem.

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