By Olivia Montes
Elm Staff Writer
Time and time again, we have devised new, convenient ways to master the complex environments around us, preferably how to contain and hold some of our most valued needs and wants.
What is known scientifically as polystyrene happens to be one of them — as well as, unfortunately — one of the planet’s main pollutants.
Though the numbers are not exact as to how much polystyrene we use, scientists do know that we are suffering because of our constant dependence on the product itself, whether it be to package our online deliveries, grant us dinners from our favorite restaurants, or even provide us with a simple cup of coffee in the morning.
“While we haven’t quantified how much of our plastic waste stems specifically from takeout, takeaway, or food delivery, we do know we’re drowning in it,” Jasmin Malik Chua of VOX Media said in 2019.
It is because of our outright codependency on the multiple forms of polystyrene that we continue to unleash a harmful cloud of chemicals, pollutants, and other repercussions upon our fragile biosphere — and it is due to that dependency that we are continuing down this destructive, irreversible path to collapse.
“In the United States, packaging as a whole — that is, for food, beverages, cosmetics, and medications — accounts for 30% of municipal solid waste. In 2017, this amounted to 80.1 million tons,” Malik Chua said.
“At least one research firm posits that the US online food-delivery market will grow 6.5% year over year from $22 billion in 2019 to $28 billion by 2023,” she said.
With these statistics in mind, we need to re-establish ourselves as an environmentally-friendly society, in which our core values lie within protecting the natural world and every species living there, and make the appropriate efforts to ensure that we place preservation above accessibility and profit.
That is not to say that companies are not trying. With this proven research, multiple companies, particularly those in the fast food industry, have taken the initiative to promote eco-friendly products for their customers, including paper straws and microfiber takeout boxes.
At the same time, not all companies are open to this much-needed change. High-profile delivery services such as Amazon, for example, have swept aside this need, since their industry requires polystyrene as packaging for their customers’ orders, regardless of the cost for the surrounding environment.
“Polystyrene foam sales have been declining, and the company has been broadening its offerings to include more paper products, including coffee cups sold at Starbucks and Dunkin’, [while scientists are] also experimenting with containers that can be composted or fashioned from recycled content,” The New York Times’ Michael Corkery said.
There is also the issue that polystyrene, whether or not people recycle it, is a difficult product to break down, taking over a record number of years to effectively dissolve, and still continues to leave enough residue to continue its pollutant rampage across the globe.
“While the average American generates 234 pounds of plastic waste every year, no more than 9% is typically recycled,” Malik Chua said. “But a staggering majority of the plastics we use every day are buried in landfills, polluting coastlines and oceans, or befouling our drinking water and food chain.”
“Even as the market for polystyrene shrinks, many environmental groups want to abolish foam entirely because if it ends up as litter, it can break down easily into small pieces, harming fish and animals that ingest it,” Corkery said.
And yet, even with these pro-green plans in motion, those who have firmly settled into this anti-Earth norm are just as stubborn to change their ways — and are not willing to go down without a fight either.
“Findings such as these have driven recent movements to eliminate one-time-use plastic products, such as plastic straws, which the District banned, polystyrene food containers, which Maine banned, or plastic shopping bags, which California banned,” The Washington Post Editorial Board said in 2019.
“[But] alternatives often come with substantial hidden environmental harms: Producing paper and cotton shopping bags requires more carbon dioxide emissions than thin plastic ones; foam food containers need less water and energy to make than possible replacement materials,” they said.
Though these promotions have faced opposition from countries across the world, we must continue to pull together and not only establish eco-friendly materials as the new norm for our culture, we must effectively strive to promote an effort to preserve all that remains of our planet — before it is too late.
“In the United States, an entire cottage industry has sprung up around “zero waste,” complete with reusable cutlery, reusable straws, reusable lunch boxes, and reusable to-go cups,” Malik Chua said.
“But living this lifestyle requires dedication and work. And for most people, eco-anxious or not, convenience trumps work any day,” she said.