This past year there were a lot of announcements in our industry about the elimination of plastic straws. I think it is great that hotel companies are doing this but let’s all agree that it is a pretty simple step that is not going to require too much action or sacrifice. Why not build upon straw elimination and get rid of other nasty items—those made from Styrofoam, for example?
Over the Christmas holiday I stayed at a hotel claiming to be “green” but in its breakfast area there were disposable Styrofoam plates and cups. I was not impressed, and I let them know when I was asked about my visit by e-mail later. Is your property still using Styrofoam? If so, why?
Styrofoam’s story is bad news from beginning to end. It is made from polystyrene, a petroleum-based plastic. Styrene is the foundational ingredient used to make polystyrene. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have established styrene as a possible human carcinogen. 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. 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. When Styrofoam is burnt for energy or for disposal, it is released into the environment leading to air pollution and health problems when inhaled by people and animals.
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. Cleveland State University says that it requires more than a million years to decompose. This, combined with the fact that Styrofoam floats, means that large amounts of polystyrene have accumulated along coastlines and waterways around the world. It is considered a main component of marine debris.
Another Carcinogen to Consider
Benzene is another key ingredient used in making Styrofoam. It is considered a carcinogenic that is foremost an occupational hazard, even causing leukemia in severe cases, according to EPA. It is a Volatile Organic Compound classified as a key pollutant by EPA, that is mainly in air, but reaches soil and water when washed down by rain and snow. It can then enter underground supplies, because it can dissolve in water to some extent, according to an NIH report.
Dioxins are Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) that are used in manufacturing polystyrene. Dioxins cause immune and hormonal problems and affect fetal development as an occupational hazard to workers exposed to it.
Styrofoam easily breaks into small bits. Small land and aquatic animals eating these pieces die due to toxins and blockage of their stomachs leading to starvation. This, combined with the fact that Styrofoam is lightweight and therefore floats, means that over time a great deal of polystyrene has accumulated along coasts and waterways around the world. It is one of the main components of marine debris.
Sandals Resorts International, which is eliminating all Styrofoam from its 19 properties, says the elimination of Styrofoam is particularly important in the Caribbean region, where marine wildlife across the more than 700 islands and coastlines is abundant. According to Environment America’s Wildlife Over Waste campaign, scientists have found plastic fragments including Styrofoam in 86 percent of all sea turtle species, 44 percent of all seabird species and 43 percent of all marine mammal species.
Reducing dependence on Styrofoam is the best way to decrease its production and effect on the environment. If you want to make eco-friendly choices to eliminate the use of Styrofoam, look for products manufactured from renewable resources, containing biodegradable materials, and those that are easily recycled. Better yet, use washable plates and cups in your breakfast area.
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