Polystyrene Disposal Homepage

  • According To The Industry...
  • The Facts
  • Incineration
  • Recycling

    According To The Industry...

    The industry assumes that the public is hooked on the convenience of their product. They contend that it is unfair to deny the public a conveniently disposable product because of some environmental concerns. Never mind that the concept of convenient disposal is no longer valid in most communities facing solid waste crises.

    The polystyrene industry makes light of the issue of the impact of their products in the waste stream. They suggest that polystyrene foam food service disposables contribute approximately 0.25 percent by weight of the total waste stream, and that the products of combustion of polystyrene are carbon dioxide and water. They project that all plastics make up only 7.3 percent, by weight of the total solid waste stream.[1]

    1. George Baggett, "Styrene Migration Into Human Adipose Tissue."

    The Facts

    Using the industry’s numbers, 0.25 percent of our national average of 547,945 tons per day of garbage
    [1] is 1,369 tons per day of this plastic which ends up in our landfills and incinerators. Assuming no added weight from processing and printing, the industry would have had to operate at 68 percent of its 1988 capacity to have produced 2,738 tons per day of styrene of which roughly 50 percent is used in consumer products.[2]

    By Volume, the amount of space used up in landfills by all plastics is between 25 and 30 percent! [2]

    1. Biocycle, Jim Glenn, April 1990.
    2. "Polystyrene Fact Sheet," Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, California.


    Amoco and Dart both claim that incineration of polystyrene produces only carbon dioxide and water, and that because of its petroleum content it burns at a very high temperature and can burn out impurities in the incinerator.
    [1] Carbon dioxide is hardly harmless, as it contributes to global warming.

    When polystyrene was burned at temperatures of 800-900 Celsius (the typical range of a modern incinerator), the products of combustion consisted of "a complex mixture of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from alkyl benzenes to benzo[ghi]perylene. Over 90 different compounds were identified in combustion effluents from polystyrene."[1]

    With the addition of chlorine donors as simple as table salt, it is inevitable that combustion of polystyrene in municipal solid waste incinerators will contribute to the formation of highly chlorinated polycyclic compounds like dioxins, furans, hexachlorobenzene, and chlorophenols. It is this family of compounds that are some of the most biologically active toxins known to humans.[2]

    Another problem with incineration is that much of the foam will have been tinted, and some types of ink release the heavy metals cadmium and lead, both of which are toxic.[3]

    1.R.A, Hawley-Fedder, M.L. Parsons, and F.W. Karasek, "Products Obtained During Combustion of Polymers Under Simulated Incinerator Conditions, II Polystyrene," Journal of Chromatography, #315, 1984, Elevier Science Publishers B.V., Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
    2. G. Baggett, "Basic Chemistry of Dioxins and Furans," presentation to the Air Toxics Symposium, Air Pollution Control Association in April 1987.
    3. "Polystyrene Fact Sheet," Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, California.


    Some problems with recycling are purely economic. The start-up costs for a polystyrene recycling plant are enormous and the pay-off, as of now, is uncertain. Recycled plastic is always a lower grade than the "virgin" material, so some applications, such as that for food packaging, cannot use recycled plastic. But how can one call a process "recycling" when the output is an end-use product; one that cannot be recycled again? (End uses of recycled polystyrene include wall insulation, packing filler, and cafeteria trays, as well as other non-food applications.)

    1. "Polystyrene Fact Sheet," Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, California.

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    Last modified: 4 Mar 1996