Bad Things About Styrofoam Lunch Trays

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Styrofoam is a form of plastic, called expanded polystyrene, that has been injected with chemicals to make it much lighter than its pre-injected form. It has been used for insulating purposes for decades, keeping warm things warm and cool things cool. It is commonly used as lunch trays, cups, and plates but it is also used in construction and for packing and shipping. Many schools use Styrofoam lunch trays on a daily basis; however, these trays are bad for the environment and bad for people's health. As a result, many schools, cities and counties have worked to ban the Styrofoam lunch trays, using reusable trays or biodegradable trays instead.

Rarely Recycled

  • Although millions of tons of Styrofoam are produced annually, it is usually not recycled. Styrofoam lunch trays are particularly lightweight and have a low market value, making most recycling centers unwilling to put forth the time, effort and energy needed to recycle these products. Across the United States, few states are home to even a single Styrofoam recycling center and most of those will not recycle used lunch trays.

Creates Waste

  • Since they are usually not recycled, Styrofoam lunch trays most often end up in landfills where they may take centuries to break down, using valuable space in the process. Estimates indicate that 25 billion Styrofoam products are put into landfills each year. In New York City, for example, 830,000 Styrofoam lunch trays are used daily in the city's public schools and most of these end up in landfills.

Causes Pollution

  • Some Styrofoam lunch trays will be carelessly littered, others will blow from landfills or other waste centers into storm drains, rivers, or creeks. From there, the trays may float into the ocean. Scientists and environmentalists have named the enormous buildup of plastics, including Styrofoam lunch trays, in our ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Not only is this form of pollution unsightly, animals also tend to consume it, causing them to have potentially fatal digestive problems.

Contains Hazardous Materials

  • Styrene, pentane and benzene are among the main chemicals that make up Styrofoam lunch trays. These chemicals are considered hazardous to the environment and to people's health. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency lists styrene as a hazardous air pollutant and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists it as a potential human carcinogen. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, styrene is particularly harmful in Styrofoam lunch trays because it leaches from the tray into the food, especially when it is heated. As a result, the person eating the food on the tray may also consume a possible carcinogen. Although pentane and benzene are also harmful to humans, there is no research indicating that it leaches into food that comes in contact with a Styrofoam lunch tray. The industrial workers who manufacture the Styrofoam lunch trays are much more at risk of damaging their central nervous system or developing leukemia from contact to pentane or benzene than the general population.

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  • Photo Credit Andrew Bret Wallis/BananaStock/Getty Images
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