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Misunderstood Polystyrene: The Facts

In 1770, John Adams said the above words while representing British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre.  Today, the same statement could just as well describe the unfounded attacks on polystyrene.

Let’s answer some basic questions on this unfairly maligned material.

What is polystyrene?

In 1770, John Adams said the above words while representing British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre.  Today, the same statement could just as well describe the unfounded attacks on polystyrene.

Webster’s defines polystyrene as “a rigid transparent thermoplastic that has good physical and electrical insulating properties and is used especially in molded products, foams, and sheet materials.”  Polystyrene was discovered in 1839 by Eduard Simon.  Foamed polystyrene is familiar to consumers and most commonly known for its use as foam cups and containers, protective packaging and building insulation. Polystyrene is also widely used in other packaging and foodservice products, such as trays, disposable plates, cutlery and tumblers.

What are benefits of polystyrene? 

Polystyrene foam is superior to other packaging materials because it is:

  • Cleaner
  • Resists bacterial growth
  • More visually appealing to customers
  • Easier to handle
  • Moisture resistant
  • Less expensive
  • Lighter weight
  • Valued for insulation qualities
  • Environmentally sound
  • Recyclable

Is polystyrene recyclable?

Dean Heyl is senior director, state government relations, public policy & tax counsel for the International Franchise Association.

Dean Heyl is senior director, state government relations, public policy & tax counsel for the International Franchise Association.

Recycling of U.S. post-consumer expanded polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, rose from 3 million pounds in 1990 to 36.7 million pounds in 2012, according to the EPS Industry Alliance – 2012 EPS Recycling Rate Report. In 2006, the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers reported that 56 million pounds of expanded polystyrene were recycled.  That’s an astonishing amount considering that expanded polystyrene is 98 percent air.  According to the EPA’s 2011 study of municipal solid waste, polystyrene products account for only 6.8 percent of plastics in municipal solid waste.  Polystyrene does not biodegrade as quickly as other materials, making it more noticeable if not disposed of properly. However, polystyrene alternatives also will not degrade if improperly packed into landfills. Most major metropolitan centers already have ordnances against littering, and more aggressive enforcement of those existing laws would do a great deal to mitigate the material’s already limited environmental impact.

How do polystyrene bans affect franchising?

Sam Higginbotham is assistant, government relations for the International Franchise Association.

Sam Higginbotham is assistant, government relations for the International Franchise Association.

Several cities have considered polystyrene bans.  For example, Albany, N.Y. has gone so far as to propose banning the use of polystyrene foam foodservice products from “Chain Foodservice Establishments.” Polystyrene bans force small businesses to use more expensive, less efficient material. Given polystyrene’s usefulness in the foodservice industry, this could potentially force employers to either raise prices or slash hours to compensate for the increased costs.

What is IFA doing?

The International Franchise Association has written letters, testified at hearings and built coalitions to oppose polystyrene bans. These efforts focus on bringing attention to issues about the economic impact of franchising and the detrimental costs of polystyrene laws. The franchise industry needs sensible solutions to the very real problems facing the environment, not knee-jerk legislation that would hurt businesses and do little to solve the issues at hand.

Dean Heyl is senior director of state government relations, public policy & tax counsel and Sam Higginbotham is assistant, government relations for the International Franchise Association. Find them at fransocial.franchise.org via the directory.

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