Foam Environmental Impact

Environmental Impact

While all materials have an end of life, foam is often misrepresented in the terms of its impact on landfill composition.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency[1], polystyrene foam foodservice products constitute less than 1% by both weight and volume, of our country’s municipal solid waste. In fact, all paper and plastic single-use packaging items—including foam—make up only 1.4 percent of municipal solid waste, and more paper cups end up in landfills than foam cups.

Each of the following[2] individual categories contribute to more landfill density than EPS foam items:

  • coated paperboard cups,
  • molded fiber and coated paperboard plates
  • solid (non-foam) plastic cups and clamshells
  • solid (non-foam) plastic plates
  • corrugated sleeves and clamshells
  • industrial wastes.

Foam foodservice products take up less than one percent illustration

The truth is, non-plastics, such as food waste and paper, represent 67 percent of trash composition[3] by weight and 57 percent by volume. Overall, the environmental impact from the materials and energy used in making paper cups, as well as the emissions from incinerating or burying paper cups exceeds the impact of making and disposing of cups made of polystyrene foam.

Contrary to popular public belief, waste does not readily biodegrade in modern landfills. Municipal solid waste landfills are designed to discourage biodegradation by isolating the waste from oxygen, sunlight, and water – the three elements needed for biodegradation. Modern landfills are well-engineered facilities managed under strict federal and state regulations to ensure the protection of human health and the environment.

Because biodegradation can lead to the release of harmful methane gas or leachate and contaminate groundwater, it is preferable to place non-biodegradable rather than biodegradable products in landfills. Consequently, many communities are moving toward recycling, composting, and waste-to-energy initiatives.

Polystyrene is an excellent candidate for waste-to-energy efforts that divert materials from landfills to energy recovery facilities since it generates 17,800 BTUs[4] of energy per pound. That is double the inherent energy value of coal.

[1] Foodservice Packaging Institute. (2017). In Foodservice packaging is THE sensible solution.

[2] Franklin Associates, Ltd. (2006). Final Peer-Reviewed Report: Life Cycle Inventory of Polystyrene Foam, Bleached Paperboard, and Corrugated Paper Foodservice Products (pp. 2-60).

[3] California Water Boards. (2015). Staff Report for Trash Amendments.

[4] Foodservice Packaging Institute. (2015). Foodservice Packaging: The Environment.

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