Hold the Foam
The Girls Gone Green persuades some restaurants to switch to eco-friendly containers
Takeout is the American way.
We like our conveniences, and that sometimes means eating our favorite restaurant food in the comfort of our own homes. Maybe we're too busy, too tired or too lazy to cook that night. Perhaps we want to dine on our favorite sushi while we click to our favorite show.
Sometimes we just can't finish the enormous portions we're served and need to take home leftovers. Did someone say, "bonus lunch"?
And that doesn't include fast-food places where drive-thru rules.
One of the many problems with this — besides growing obesity, fewer home-cooked meals shared around the dinner table and a generation of children who don't know how to cook — is the proliferation of to-go containers that end up in landfills. A large percentage of those containers are made of polystyrene (known by many as Styrofoam).
Polystyrene is a lightweight, petroleum-based plastic good for keeping beverages hot or cold and for keeping electronics safe during shipping. It's also inexpensive. Sounds great, right?
Not so fast. Styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene, creates some major health concerns during its production. Workers who are exposed to styrene can experience irritation of the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract, along with gastrointestinal effects, according to Earth Resource Foundation. Chronic exposure can affect the central nervous system and can cause minor effects on kidney function and blood.
Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Earth Resource Foundation's website states that producing polystyrene creates air pollution and liquid and solid waste. Environmental groups say toxins are released into our foods through polystyrene containers when food is hot or reheated.
Polystyrene that doesn't make it to landfills can break down into smaller pieces, which could choke animals and clog their digestive system. It floats, contributing to the marine debris on coasts and waterways around the world.
Many curbside recycling companies don't accept polystyrene, although Jacksonville's recycling programs do. Not everyone thinks polystyrene is a problem. Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association for American chemical companies, said the levels of styrene in polystyrene are low and at safe levels, citing that polystyrene meets requirements for food contact set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
He said polystyrene food service products are more often recycled than paper products and make up a tiny fraction of consumer waste.
"It's about 90 percent air, so you use much less material to make it in the first place than other alternatives," Christman said. "It results in lower greenhouse gases and less solid waste."
When polystyrene food containers are recycled, many are turned into durable applications such as picture frames and architectural moulding. He said there's a good market for that material, but not much is collected.
He said polystyrene is stable in landfills. As far as its danger to animals and waterways, he said the biggest danger is littering. When any trash is not properly disposed, it's a threat to wildlife.
Environmentalists say one thing, while industry experts say the opposite. So what's a concerned consumer to do?
That's where The Girls Gone Green, a nonprofit that explores environmental, animal and health issues through outreach and events, comes in. Executive Director Julie Watkins — an Action News meteorologist — and Christina Kelcourse have been working with Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach and Ponte Vedra Beach restaurants to Hang Up The Foam and offer eco-friendly to-go containers.
Watkins said many businesses are receptive to the environmental issues, given their close proximity to the ocean and the St. Johns River, but the cost can be prohibitive.
"They don't want to continue using it, but it's a cost thing," Watkins said. "Restaurants are willing to pay a little more, knowing they're protecting their customers and their local ecosystem."
The Girls Gone Green contacted Sea Breeze Food Service, a locally owned and operated food distributor, to help them find the most cost-effective, eco-friendly containers. Andrew Combs, a district sales representative, said about 5 percent of his clients asked for biodegradable products in the past. But he has been talking to some of the company's 50 beaches clients as part of this initiative and getting good response.
"It's definitely a tough pill to swallow when you're looking at the bottom line," Combs said. "You're helping the community and helping future generations who won't have to deal with the clean up."
He said biodegradable containers can cost two to four times as much as polystyrene products. He's working with his vendors to provide the lowest cost to his clients. He said the products will be compostable, biodegradable and made from a cornstarch product that looks like cardboard.
One thing about products labeled compostable or biodegradable: They often require industrial compost facilities. Many will not biodegrade in the tomblike conditions of landfills, Christman said.
Some companies say they do. Arrow Tableware claims its products will completely biodegrade in 180 days in a landfill.
More than 100 cities have banned polystyrene food packaging, mostly on the West Coast. Several other cities are considering bans.
"What we're trying to do here is a little unique, because we're asking the businesses to voluntarily give up Styrofoam," Watkins said.
She said once restaurants have signed up to Hang Up the Foam, The Girls Gone Green will come up with ways to recognize the businesses, such as posters for their doors.
Then, consumers can make their own decisions about whether they want to hold the foam.