Oct 16

Styrofoam, Health and Worms

Styrofoam, health and worms

Polystyrene as packing peanuts

I’ve written previously about my disdain for plastic and the environmental and health dangers associated with it. I referred to my displeasure as a plastic plague. In that discussion I didn’t focus on any one type of plastic in particular, but this time I am—and the target is #6, specifically Styrofoam (aka, polystyrene).

This form of plastic poses two main detrimental impacts to our health and to the environment. What can we do to reduce these challenges? Could worms help us with both?

Styrofoam and health

Styrofoam is a Dow Chemical Company trademarked form of extruded polystyrene foam (EPS). It is essentially one form of polystyrene plastic usually coded as #6 plastic.

Polystyrene contains styrene, a chemical that has been associated with hearing and vision loss, disruption of memory and concentration, cancer, and nervous system problems. Individuals who work in facilities where they are exposed to styrene on a prolonged basis frequently experience chronic headaches, fatigue, weakness, depression, and harmful effects to kidney function.

Every time you eat food or drink beverages out of a polystyrene plate or cup at home or at a picnic or take home food from a restaurant in a #6 clamshell container, you are exposing yourself to styrene because it leaches out of the container and into the contents. (Tip: Besides not using #6 plates and cups, I also bring my own take-home container in my purse when going to a restaurant. That way, no #6!)

Styrofoam and the environment

Styrofoam is an environmental hazard even before it reaches consumers. The production process releases 57 chemical byproducts into the air, water, and soil. Among those chemicals are hydrofluorocarbons, which deplete the ozone layer and thus affect climate change.

Once the product has been made and ends up in landfills (which it does at horrifying rates because recycling availability is so poor), it takes 500 years to decompose and consumes 25 to 30 percent of landfill space. This includes not only all those #6 cups, plates, and clamshells, but the polystyrene foam forms used to pack electronic equipment and furniture.

This is where the worms come into the picture.

Worms and the recycling challenge

In a perfect world, we would eliminate the use of polystyrene, but that probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, Styrofoam is very difficult to recycle, given the limited market for the material and the small number of recycling locations around the country (but see below). Therefore, much of it ends up in landfills.

Styrofoam, health and wormsA team of scientists at Stanford University have discovered that mealworms like a meal of Styrofoam. When they fed the #6 plastic to a group of 100 mealworms, they consumed 34 to 39 milligrams of the plastic within 24 hours. Their feeding frenzy resulted in about half of the plastic being converted to carbon dioxide and half into biodegradable material that can be (according to the researchers) be used as a safe fertilizer for crops.

The Stanford scientists have now teamed up with colleagues in China to identify whether other insects can be put to work to break down other types of plastics. They also would like to discover a marine creature that could help clean up the plastics that are polluting our oceans.

What you can do

Although mealworms and other creatures may be helpful in tackling our polystyrene and other plastic plague, the real answer is to turn off the source or at least significantly reduce it while finding other, earth-friendly materials to take their place. In the meantime, all of us can take steps to help preserve our health and the health of the planet.

  • Look for a polystyrene recycling location near you. Dart Container Corporation is one company that has collection sites across the USA. Check here for a map and list of facilities.
  • Another recycling option is offered by EPS Industry Alliance, which provides a map of locations as well as mail-in recycling
  • Recycle your polystyrene packing peanuts at shipping centers such as UPS, Mail Boxes Etc. and others (call first)
  • Never buy polystyrene cups and plates
  • Bring your own take-out containers with you to restaurants
  • When grocery shopping, choose items that don’t use polystyrene

Also Read: Power Walking, Not What You Think

Why I Recycle Cigarette Butts



Gizmag.com Mealworms recycle styrofoam



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