Styrofoam may be a takeout food lifesaver, but it has a nasty environmental aftertaste. Thankfully, styrofoam alternatives are starting to enter the scene—some of them from very unlikely sources!
What’s the problem with styrofoam?
Also known as expanded polystyrene (EPS), Styrofoam is the king of single-use plastics.
It’s not hard to see why. This material is notoriously lightweight, water-resistant, and shock-absorbent. It’s a frequent go-to in the packaging industry as well, and it’s been a favorite for the past 50 years. It’s quite literally everywhere.
Every year, over 14 million tons of Styrofoam is made, and over 2 million tons of it go to the landfill. That’s 25-35% of all landfill waste total.
In 2021, nearly twice as much plastic waste in the US was incinerated versus recycled (15.8% vs 8.7%). Since nearly 80% of those incinerators are located near low-income communities, burning that plastic disproportionately impacts them while also emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gasses.
It’s also a menace when it comes to marine pollution. Styrofoam never fully biodegrades. Instead, it just crumbles into a million puffs of plastic, perfectly bite-sized for marine life to consume accidentally.
Those tiny pieces drift on the waves and breeze for perpetuity until they finally coat the coastlines. So it’s no surprise that styrofoam is one of the most common items collected by the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup® volunteers. In 2022, plastic foam takeout containers were the seventh most common item collected globally in these cleanup efforts.
Two Styrofoam Alternatives
Simply cutting out Styrofoam doesn’t seem to be a viable solution in our current market, but introducing alternatives made from sustainable sources may be the next best thing.
Check out just a few of these creative styrofoam alternatives below!
This Philippines-based business aims to replace styrofoam with an alternative made from coconut husks.
Why coconuts? These hardy little fruits evolved their husks to protect themselves from the blazing tropical sun, which means those fibers are notoriously hard to break. And yet, more often than not, the husks are reduced to byproducts of the coconut oil industry and are burned as waste, which contributes even more CO2 to the atmosphere.
Instead, Fortuna Cools used these husks to develop their Nutshell Cooler. The coolers combined recycled polyester and biodegradable coconut fiber to create sustainable insulation.
The fibers from the husk do eventually biodegrade, which makes them a great source of mulch or compost. So far, they’ve already diverted 600,000 coconut husks to make Nutshell Coolers. Their customers range from local vegetable traders in the Philippines to adventurers on the East Coast of the US.
Fortuna Cools currently sources the husks from over 1,000 small-scale farming facilities across the Philippines, with plans to expand even further in the near future. Upcycling the husks has been an additional boost for local coconut farmers by providing another stream of income, building local jobs and supporting the local economy on sustainable sources.
Instead of coconuts, Cruz Foam created a styrofoam alternative out of…well, buggier materials.
Enter chitin: the second most abundant biopolymer on Earth, and commonly found in plants, insects, and crustacean shells.
Chitin is incredibly light and incredibly strong—and yet, in most cases, it’s treated like a waste byproduct. It’s already shown great potential to be a source of bioplastics (like when it is harvested from black soldier flies).
The makers of Cruz Foam first started out by making a biofoam to replace the petroleum-based foam in surfboards (which came in handy in their hometown of Santa Cruz, California). Using shrimp shells, they created a chitin-based material by treating the shells with an alkaline solution to process the proteins into chitosan. The final product met all the same technical specs of the EPE foam, and at a similar price, as well.
Now, Cruz Foam has expanded its uses beyond surfboards—sustainable packaging, in particular. The foam can be produced on current extrusion manufacturing equipment and sold in sheets to be cut, colored, printed on, and laminated. The final product is both curbside recyclable and compostable.
The company has already helped develop packaging for customers like Farm Cottage Wines, Real Good Fish, Venus Distilleries, and Verve Packaging. They’ve even partnered with Atlantic Packaging to help scale up their capabilities.
Not only can Cruz Foam help divert huge amounts of waste from the landfill, but they also support a more circular and sustainable mindset across the board. The shrimp shells themselves come from sustainable fisheries that are GMP and HACCP-certified. And when you consider the plastic Styrofoam that is not used by using Cruz Foam, the company estimates that using styrofoam alternatives would help mitigate 17,000 tons of CO2 every year.
Looking Forward: What The Foam
So why do styrofoam alternatives really matter? At the end of the day, they can help us decrease our reliance on the “real thing”, which lowers the demand. After all, the only real way to prevent future plastic pollution is to stop new plastic from being produced in the first place.
The good news is that the general public seems amenable, if not outright ready, for this change. 75% of Americans are concerned about plastic foam litter, and over 70% would support a national ban on plastic foam foodware. Still, some stronger action is needed, which is why the Ocean Conservancy called upon Congress to pass a national ban on single-use foodware material during their “What The Foam” campaign.
The change starts with us!
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