Polystyrene foam is facing global rejection. Across the United States, cities are banning this packaging material. Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland have all followed the example set by San Francisco’s expanded plastic foam ban, as legislation begins to tackle growing environmental concerns. It’s not just the States either, as the ban moves to South East Asia too.
Why ban polystyrene?
Expandable polystyrene foam – commonly known by its brand name Styrofoam – might be 95% air, but the sheer volume of the material impacts the environment hugely. In 2006 for example, 135 million tons was dumped into Hong Kong landfills. That’s a lot of material - and it will take decades to break down. It can end up polluting wildlife too, getting into the food cycle of fish and smaller mammals. In addition to this pure waste bulk, the possible human health risks of plastic foam include eye, respiratory tract and skin irritation as well as gastrointestinal effects. The US EPA has also listed styrene as a possible human carcinogen.
Is it just polystyrene being banned?
No, the polystyrene ban is symptomatic of a larger global effort to reduce plastic waste. See France’s recent outlawing of plastic cups, plates and cutlery and the UK’s plastic-bag charge brought in to discourage use of the material.
The packaging benefits of plastic
Packaging and containers made from plastic, and especially polystyrene, are popular. Really popular. They are cheap to manufacture, and because they are lightweight, they are cheap to transport. Plastics also have good insulation and protective qualities. Perhaps for the time being, to some suppliers, plastic still seems like an economic no-brainer. However, the world tide is turning against its use. For forward-thinking businesses, switching to more eco-conscious packaging to ensure a long-term future away from plastic is a good bet.
Ethical, sustainable, recyclable: a new era of packaging
Ethical shopping is a growing trend. Consumers are pushing for it - and have made it clear that they are prepared to pay for more environmentally conscious products and packaging. As a result of long-term campaigning and increased pressure, the packaging industry and manufacturers at large are slowly adapting to change in the industry. Adopting alternatives to plastics and polystyrene is a way to build bridges with consumers and future-proof your business.
Alternative packaging and the future
America alone disposes of 25 billion polystyrene cups a year. So instead of making the cups in polystyrene, how about biodegradable cardboard? It’s what you’ll have to settle for in San Francisco these days. Then there’s naturally-sourced mushroom packaging, which is environmentally friendly and low cost. Or the similarly ethically-minded sugar cane-derived alternative.
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For the moment, none are as cheap as manufactured plastic. Still, they are all better long-term answers to the environmental question. Recycling can only go so far. The green concern needs to start at the source of production, and not as an afterthought. Packaging needs to face up to ecological trends and act accordingly to survive changing consumer buying habits and comply with legislation sweeping the industry.