It’s no secret that Styrofoam is terrible for our health and the environment.
Styrofoam (styrene, polystyrene) is a petroleum-based plastic produced by Dow Chemical Company in 1941 as an alternative to paper cups for hot drinks. It’s cheap, lightweight, and easy to make, which is why we find it everywhere – from fast food to takeout and packaging. It also takes up a lot of space which means fewer trees (and less oxygen).
But the war on Styrofoam cups won’t be an easy one. Styrofoam has been around for over 70 years, and every single day, we consume around 500 million plastic cups just in the U.S. alone.
Is Styrofoam biodegradable?
Styrofoam is not biodegradable, meaning it does not break down over time. It can, however, be recycled for use in other products.
Yes! Although recycling Styrofoam requires the material to be ground up before being molded into new items, it can be recycled into a number of different products.
6 Best Eco-Friendly Alternatives
Luckily, there are a lot of eco-friendly alternatives to Styrofoam out there, and here’s where you can find them. So what eco-friendly alternatives to Styrofoam exist? Here are 6 compostable and recyclable food packaging alternatives:
- Corn starch and sorghum loose fill
Sorghum is a fiber crop, and the “dust” left over after harvesting it can be used as loose-fill packing material. The starch-based biopolymer polylactic acid (PLA) made from sorghum is non-toxic and can be shaped into different shapes using injection molding, which makes it strong enough to be used as a replacement for Styrofoam.
Corn starch is also an alternative to Styrofoam, and according to scientists at the University of Oxford, it has the advantage of being able to biodegrade in soil within 6-12 weeks. PLA does not degrade in open conditions (it degrades when exposed to UV light). It can be broken down by enzymes produced naturally in the soil, but this is slow.
- Milk plastic
PLA-based milk cups are getting more and more popular due to their ability to biodegrade within 30 days, unlike Styrofoam which will take around 500 years. However, unlike corn starch and sorghum loose-fill, milk plastic will not break down in the soil – it needs composting to biodegrade.
Another alternative to Styrofoam is bagasse, a type of sugarcane fiber that can be used as packing material or molded into sustainable dinnerware and cups. It’s also compostable but does not biodegrade in soil.
- Wood pulp cellophane
Also made from plant material, wood pulp cellophane is a type of flexible wrapping that can be printed with ink, providing new opportunities for branding and marketing purposes. The material also allows you to add more value to your product by printing on it. Unfortunately, this type of material is not biodegradable and has a limited shelf life (about 12 months).
- Edible six-pack ring
A fun way to save the oceans from plastic pollution is to fight with food. The edible six-pack rings made from wheat and barley are 100% biodegradable which means they will degrade when in contact with water.
They are also not harmful to species of marine animals, unlike plastic rings which get stuck around their necks and choke them. The real problem is that the six-pack rings are usually made from virgin plastic, which has to be sourced from petroleum. But scientists are working on creating biological plastics which could be used for this purpose instead.
- Palm leaves
Plastic can be made from palm leaves, and they are biodegradable and compostable, such as compostable dog poops that contain 100% recycled material for an eco-friendly environment. Unfortunately, the process is still too much expensive for mass production at this point. You can find them in some places such as Dubai.
So, compostable packaging products like cutlery, cups, and plates are better substitutes for Styrofoam because this food packaging composts faster than traditional plastics.
Protect the Environment at Every Small Step
The problem with Styrofoam is that its breakdown takes a very long time, and many of the products we use on a daily basis contain it. For example, did you know that just one fast food meal contains around 40 pieces of Styrofoam? That’s a lot of waste that adds up in landfills.
The good news is that you can do your part to protect the environment at every small step. Use recycled products made from corn starch or sorghum loose-fill, milk plastic, bagasse, wood pulp cellophane, edible six-pack ring, and palm leaves.