Moving Towards Zero-Waste / Polystyrene-Free Packaging

For consumers, recycling of bottles, paper, plastic bags, and cardboard is becoming a way of life.   According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 45 million tons, which makes up 72 percent of newspaper/mechanical papers and 85 percent of corrugated cardboard, were recovered in 2010.  We’re not quite that good with plastic yet.  In 2010, 31 million tons of plastic waste was generated in, with only 8% recovered.  Why the difference?   Perhaps because we just don’t know what to do with many plastics, especially Polystyrene, which is also known as Styrofoam or Thermacol.

Although polystyrene is convenient and effective for packaging, we don’t know what to do with it after we unpack our goods.  In fact, there isn’t much we can do with it.  A 1986 EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste. The production of one ton of polystyrene requires 685 US gallons of oil, and emits 94,119/20,000 tons of CO2 and 2,055.8 tons of greenhouse gases. The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The packagingprocess of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste, and these hazardous properties make it difficult to recycle.  Thus, most polystyrene ends up in the trash, and in landfills.  According to the Earth Resource Foundation, polystyrene products make up approximately 25 to 30 percent of space in landfills around the world and will be sitting there for over 500 years!   Based on these risks and costs, over 100 US and foreign cities and counties have outlawed polystyrene foam (i.e. Taiwan, Portland, OR, and Orange County, CA).  So why does it keep showing up in our packages?  I
guess it’s just lack of awareness, or inability to consider alternatives.

Solutions for coffee cups and take out containers are still being investigated, but we now have alternatives for polystyrene in packaging. Products like suspension packaging provide an easy to implement, in expensive, reusable alternative for shipping and packing.  This product stretches up to 500% and shapes itself to the packed item, enabling a package to be used for multiple products, unlike custom molded polystyrene.  After delivery, the packaging can easily be collapsed and returned for reuse, or, alternatively, can be safely recycled in regular mix-stream recycling of cardboard and plastic.

More expensive, but also viable, are new solutions such as packing made of mushrooms, or other organic materials.   Pumped up air bags are also viable for some shipping, but they don’t protect electronics or other fragile materials as well as something like suspension packaging.

Once again, a bit of thinking “outside the box” can bring economically advantageous ecological solutions to our daily life.  It’s time that more towns and cities take a stance on the packaging that is being shipped into their communities, and move shippers away from traditional polystyrene solutions.

Can you think of other solutions to environmental issues that we should consider?  Please continue the dialog and let us know!