When It Comes To Polystyrene Packaging, What We Don't Know Could Harm Us


THE commonplace polystyrene packaging is a double-edged sword. On one hand, its convenient, low-cost availability is a boon to food traders and time-pressed Malaysians who want to buy cheap and fast takeaway food. But the sheer volume we use and throw away daily creates a whole set of other problems.

The common dangers we often hear about polystyrene is that it is bad for our health and the environment. Yet, alternatives to replace this ubiquitous packaging will cost more that what it costs now to produce polystyrene containers. Most cities which have taken steps to phase out polystyrene are in developed first-world nations in Europe and North America.

In February this year, New York City had announced it will ban polystyrene packaging from the middle of the year, joining San Francisco, Toronto and Paris which already prohibit the use of the takeaway containers.

Has Malaysia progressed far along as a developing nation to be able to consider taking on the polystyrene debate to the next level?

vvLocally, Penang has banned the use of polystyrene containers since December 2012, followed by the Malacca state government which intends to have a statewide ban by September this year while most recently, the Subang Jaya Municipal Council (MPSJ) had banned traders from using polystyrene containers to pack food during the Ramadan bazaar last month. 

For most of the local councils, the reason put forward to instituting the ban is to reduce pollution and move towards more sustainable lifestyles. For Penang, this ban is part of the state’s Cleaner, Greener Penang initiative to increase the state’s recycling rate, to reduce pollution and to promote a cleaner, greener state for sustainability.

Malacca has banned the use of polystyrene food containers at all cafes in government buildings, food premises of local authorities and schools on May 15 and is expected to extended to all food premises by September this year.

Malacca Green Technology Corporation chief executive officer Datuk Kamarudin Md Shah had explained the initiative for “Malacca Without Polystyrene” is aimed at reducing the use of polystyrene as the material does not decompose and is bad for the environment.

Basically, the argument boils down to three main issues - it is environmentally unfriendly, adds to waste disposal problems, and it’s a health hazard due to the fact that it’s derived from a toxic material. But an outright ban is also not feasible if the alternative will pose a greater financial burden on the people.

Malaysian Digest takes a closer look at this hidden danger lurking in every street corner in Malaysia and talks to people with vested interest in the subject on whether Malaysians are ready to change their lifestyle and perception to accommodate a nationwide ban on polystyrene packaging.

How Much Do You Know About Polystyrene?

Much has been said about the possible health risks posed by the long-term use of polystyrene as well as its potential adverse effects to the environment. Nevertheless, the knowledge that the public possesses about polystyrene remains vague and largely depends on hearsay.

Polystyrene is a type of polymer with thermoplastic properties produced from the petroleum-derived monomer, styrene. In solid form, it is a colourless and rigid plastic, but it may also be returned to a liquid state by heating, and used again for molding or extrusion.

It is created by injecting plastic polymer (polystyrene) with gases such as HCFC 22, CFC 11, or CFC 12 – all ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons – or pentane to expand it into a puffy material. Toxic and hazardous chemicals, including styrene, benzene and ethylene, are also used to make polystyrene foam.

The chemical structure of this material allows it to be classified as a liquid hydrocarbon, meaning that it is composed exclusively of hydrogen and carbon. Like its precursor, it's an aromatic hydrocarbon that participates in covalent bonding with every other carbon atom being attached to a phenol group.Polystyrene Food Packaging 264x300That said, did you know that it is produced via free radical polymerization?

To put things into perspective, the reaction involves breaking the bonds between electrons and leaving them “free” to form new bonds. When burned, this material yields black carbon particles, or soot. When completely oxidized, only carbon dioxide and water vapour remain.

In fact, there are several different types that are produced. Extruded polystyrene is considered to have as much tensile strength as unalloyed aluminium, but it is lighter and more elastic. This is the material used to make a variety of molded products, ranging from plastic tableware to CD cases and model cars. Besides, it is also used to produce medical and pharmaceutical supplies.

Expanded polystyrene, where gases is injected into the compound to expand it to a puffy material commonly moulded into food and beverage containers including Styrofoam which is a brand name of one particular type of extruded polystyrene.

Over the years, many have mixed up the brand name Styrofoam with the polymer expanded polystyrene. It is very common to use Styrofoam as a generic term for foam coffee cups and take-out containers, which are typically made of expanded polystyrene.

Styrofoam is a trademark of the Dow Chemical Company for its extruded polystyrene product, which differs vastly from the generic expanded variety. Although both are rigid, closed-cell, thermoplastic foam products, they are manufactured differently and have unique qualities as well.

Is Polystyrene A 'Silent' Killer?

dr kuganDr Kugan Ganganaidu is the Medical Director of Mont Hope Clinic – PHOTO: Teh Wei SoonMany studies have been carried out domestically and overseas on the possible health risks associated with polystyrene food containers to human health in which scientists have urged caution over the use of non-biodegradable products on food industry, said the Medical Director of Mont Hope Clinic, Dr Kugan Ganganaidu (pic) in an interview with Malaysian Digest recently.

“The negative impacts of polystyrene food containers can be far-reaching although the effects cannot be seen immediately. Polystyrene, if heated or when placed under high temperature, it would become unstable before it eventually reacts with the styrene and creates harmful compounds [in the body],” Dr Kugan observed.

He further detailed, “Those chemicals produced are extremely harmful. They could potentially affect many parts of the human body such as the respiratory system, lung, eyes, nose as well as blood disorders. Although these are merely the subtle harms but it could potentially promote or accelerate cancer overtime.”

According to a report by the Foundation for Achievements in Science and Education, long-term exposure to small quantities of styrene can cause low platelet counts (or haemoglobin values), chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities.

This is, in fact, due to accumulation of styrene in the tissues of the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves; resulting in fatigue, nervousness, difficulty in sleeping, and other acute complications associated with the nervous system.

Dr Kugan, when asked how the styrene in polystyrene food containers can lethally poison a person over a long period of time, said, “There are certain factors which causes polystyrene to be more hazardous as it can cause cancerous compounds when put under certain environmental conditions,” concurring with the evidence published by the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) shows that styrene causes cancer in animals.

“For example, it is comparatively dangerous when we put hot coffee into a polystyrene cup than a cold coffee or plain water as styrene (also known as ethenylbenzene, vinylbenzene, and phenylethene) will react with high heat and alcohol solvents,” he said, adding that long-term usage of polystyrene can bring neuronal damage or neurotoxic effects.

"However, the health risks associated with the use of polystyrene may vary between individuals as some people are more vulnerable to it than the others," he stressed further.

The Ban Of Polystyrene Is Laudable, But There Must Be An Alternative

In order to find out the feasibility on the ban of polystyrene food containers nationwide, Malaysian Digestreached out to several environmental organisations and stakeholders.

Contacted last Friday, Chairperson of Malaysian Environmental NGOs (MENGO), Yasmin Rasyid (pic) told Malaysian Digest there is definitely a need to ban the use of polystyrene containers throughout Malaysia, describing it as a silent killer as there have been numerous studies revealing that styrofoam is in fact a human health hazard.

yasmin rasyidYasmin Rasyid is the Chairperson of Malaysian Environmental NGOs (MENGO)“Since polystyrene is non-biodegradable and its chemical substances are potentially harmful, what more the possible threats it would pose to the global ecosystem and animals that inhabit around us?” she questioned.

“In view of this, it is clear that the damage and harm [of polystyrene] is not just on human beings but also on other living entities as well. This is especially true when more and more styrofoam food containers are being thrown each day which has not only create a wastage issue but it has also severely polluted our environment,” she said.

Yasmin, however, expressed her reservations by saying, “Although the ban of polystyrene food containers is a laudable move, but there must be an alternative packaging first. Secondly, we should really figure out whether or not the consumers are willing to pay for the extra costs incurred if the polystyrene is being replaced by a slightly more expensive paper-based container."

Asked what are the possible alternatives to polystyrene, she said, "Instead of using foam containers, we can use reusable paper-based containers. Alternatively, bring along your own Tupperware containers for packed meals."

"Everything needs to be well-planned, otherwise it would not solve any existing issues," she stressed further.

dvsgrGurmit Singh K.S is the Chairman of Center for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (CETDEM)Meanwhile, Chairman of Center for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (CETDEM) Gurmit Singh K.S. (pic) also shared his opinion with Malaysian Digest when contacted recently.

"We are definitely against the idea of using styrofoam as the food container, given the fact that it is a non-renewable petroleum-derived materials. Not only that, there will be emission of toxic gas during the production of styrofoam containers which is not only extremely hazardous to the human health but also to the entire ecosystem.

Echoing the thoughts on MENGO's Yasmin, Gurmit said, "The ban of polystyrene containers and styrofoam is a good move in the sense it can help to cut down the mass production of these non-renewable products which does not only cause a wastage issue but also to the well-being of the human as a whole, before adding that all these non-biodegradable are fundamentally detrimental to the environmental as it takes a long time to decompose.

"The uncontrolled use of non-recyclable polystyrene would only multiply the amount of the waste that need to be tackled, " he added.

What Can We Do?

As with any big business, plastic manufacturers worldwide have also been busy lobbying to promote the benefits of recycling polystyrene and the advances made in producing safer versions of the controversial product. Of course, the significantly lower costs, up to 30% lower than alternatives in the market at the moment are also continually highlighted.

However the dangers posed by styrene in styrofoam and other expanded polystyrene packaging cannot be ignored as it brings negative impacts to all living entities.

Future Centre Trust, an environmental NGO based in Barbados had outlined the key dangers on polystyrene in simple but impactful terms. 

  • It takes at least 500 years to decompose
  • Adding hot food or drinks to polystyrene starts a partial breakdown of the material, causing some toxins to be absorbed into our bloodstream and tissue
  • EPA report in 1986 already points out polystyrene manufacturing process as the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste in the United States
  • Burning polystyrene releases even more harmful chemicals, including carbon monoxide
  • Indiscriminate dumping leads to marine pollution where the UN estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.
  • Public health contamination risks as styrene acts as a neurotoxin by attacking the central and peripheral nervous systems
Educating the public on the need to change harmful habits is a small victory but how ready are Malaysians to embrace this change?


Malaysian Digest sought the opinion of the general public on the subject.

Siti Zawiah Kamaruddin said: "As a consumer, I strongly support the proposal to ban polystyrene food containers throughout the country. In fact, I am ready for it."

"For the sake of the environment, I am willing to pay more for the extra charges incurred for the corn-based polymers as an alternative to styrofoam. I am of the view that all Malaysians should bring their own containers (Tupperwares) for any take-away meals as it is more environmentally-friendly and most importantly, they are disposable and reusable," said the 25-year-old security controller.

Meanwhile, Santos Dinesh, a logistic assistant, said, "The ban of polystyrene is a long overdue move which the Government should really look into. This is because flash floods and dengue is so rampant in Penang these days as a result of the clogged drainage system of all these non-renewable containers."

"The Federal Government should take a major step forward and outlaw the use of all these non-disposable materials. Long story short, there must be a serious hike up on cleanliness," the 38-year-old Penangite opined.

Also commenting on the matter was Penang executive councillor for Environment, Health, Welfare and Caring Society, Phee Boon Poh when contacted by Malaysian Digest.

“When the public use less polystyrene food containers, there will be less clogged drains,” asserting that the ban should be extended nationwide as it is wise move since will bring on a chain effect of lesser flash floods and fewer dengue cases," Phee noted.

Future Centre Trust put together the following list of actions that the general public can play a proactive role.fct
  • Be aware of the harmful effects of using polystyrene products and tell others
  • Use reusable cups at work instead of foam cups
  • When shopping for groceries, select items that are unwrapped, or wrapped in non-polystyrene materials: (e.g. vegetables, eggs, meat)
  • Ask local takeaway restaurants and food suppliers to use a more environmentally friendly form of food packaging. Many alternatives are now available made from materials such as post-consumer recycled paper and corn-plastics
  • Ask your Member of Parliament and Environment Minister to ban polystyrene in food packaging. There are many alternatives that will have less impact on the environment

The answer lies within us all.

- mD


Source: http://www.malaysiandigest.com/frontpage/282-main-tile/563202-when-it-comes-to-polystyrene-packaging-what-we-don-t-know-could-harm-us.html

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