A McDonald's in the 1980s would proudly serve you a Quarter Pounder in an expanded polystyrene foam container. We, the lay people of the general public, would call this container styrofoam whenever we were asked what it was made of. We were technically incorrect, but no one cared.
StyrofoamTM is a registered trademark of Dow Chemical. Yes, the Dow with all the trademarks but not the Dow that tracks Wall Street. It found a primary use among new home construction, being a really good insulation product. You may have seen homes built this way and damaged sections of Styrofoam brand insulation flying around in the air at a construction site. Yes, Styrofoam is brittle and lightweight. New homes that I see every now and then appear wrapped in Tyvek. I guess move over Dow and make way for Dupont.
Styrofoam has a boring technical name called extruded polystyrene foam. Extruded and expanded sure sound similar to me, the general public, but it's important to note they are different. Extruded polystyrene foam is also the kind of Styrofoam used for crafts. If you put extruded (XPS) and expanded (EPS) polystyrene foams next to each other, you would notice some differences.
OK, so that's Styrofoam. What about the other stuff. Expanded Polystyrene Foam lacks a fun name, which is probably why we all call it Styrofoam (but it's not). EPS is the foam used for takeout food containers, coffee cups at Dunkin Donuts, and the little trays that you buy meat on at the grocery store (sometimes). And this is the product that small cities and towns all over the country are deciding to ban in an effort to reduce landfill usage and make us healthier.
I recently encountered this ban in Somerville, Massachusetts. Somerville is a very small slice of a city wedged in between Cambridge, Medford, Everett, Boston, and maybe some other places maybe. I don't know. It lacks any discernable shape, lacks adequate transit coverage, and has the world's worst parking regulations in metro Boston. On top of all that, they have decided to ban food containers that actually work. Thanks!
Why the ban? In an effort to protect us from ourselves, Somerville has decided that it will shield us from the evils of expanded polystyrene foam. It's evil because it's dangerous for your body and it can't be recycled. It just goes in to landfills or storm drains and chokes fish and ducks. That happens while you suffer unknown effects on your health. It's really the worst stuff around.
The health claim is a bit of an overreaction, much like the BPA thing in plastic containers was. It should come as no surprise to anyone that microwaving food in one of these containers will deform the container. Probably some of that ends up in your hot and sour soup. This is why they tell you to not use it in a microwave oven. More importantly, expanded polystyrene foam should not be consumed. So don't eat it. Both of these acts will let expanded polystyrene foam wreck your system.
There are claims that scary chemicals from EPS will leak in to your food. This is probably true to some degree, which is also why the containers are single use. Don't save them and use them over and over again. For a takeout container or cup of coffee, the product works really well at keeping heat in and not adding much weight at all. Dunkin Donuts has used EPS cups for a very long time because it actually keeps the coffee warm and you can still hold the cup. It's so much a part of Dunkin Donuts that the EPS cup is in their logo!
BUT THEY CAN'T BE RECYCLED!
If they are single use containers, aren't we just filling up a landfill somewhere? If you throw them away, yes. But guess what, EPS can be recycled. A lot of grocery stores collect foam meat trays (same material in some cases) for recycling. They can do this because they just batch them all up and send them back to the manufacturer. Single stream curbside recycling has not caught up to EPS packaging, but I have hope that it will one day. Remember at one point we all had to take recycling to special centers. There is not an easy way right now to sort EPS in a single stream system.
So how is it recycled? Five minutes on Google will turn up a lot of results, but one that I found interesting is a company based here in Massachusetts called ReFoamIt. This company takes EPS packaging, cleans it, compresses it, and sends it to a company in Rhode Island that then turns it in to very small plastic pellets that are used in the manufacturing of injection molded plastic products. It's hard to get more recycley than that.
What would have been nice to see Somerville do if they are committed to protecting us from IKEA and scary food containers, is a partnership with a company like ReFoamIt to ensure containers collected in the city are recycled. Offer incentives to businesses who choose to use alternative products, but let the business continue to choose the product they feel is best for them.
Maybe I am just bitter that Somerville is why I have to drive 30 miles to get to IKEA, but damn it, I would like my Dunkin coffee in the traditional EPS cup please.