Polystyrene foam (aka styrofoam) is a persistent non-biodegradable pollutant found in the Hudson River Estuary and waterbodies around the world. Primarily used in food service and packaging, polystyrene enters the environment both intentionally and unintentionally leading to negative ecological and economic consequences. A recent report published in PLOS One estimated the world’s oceans contain a minimum of 5.2 trillion particles of plastic! The combined weight is estimated at 268,940 tons of petroleum-based plastic— including polystyrene in our global waterways.
The photo above shows polystyrene pollution on the shoreline of Little Stony Point in Hudson Highlands State Park in Putnam County, New York. Unlike many products in the waste stream, polystyrene is non-recyclable and non-compostable. Most importantly, many economical and less environmentally damaging alternatives are available on the market.
Recognizing the feasibility of eliminating polystyrene, New York City will ban the product in food service establishments beginning January 1, 2016. On June 1, 2015 Putnam County, New York will ban the use of polystyrene is county facilities. Albany County’s ban for chain restaurants went into effect in 2014. Ulster County, New York is voting on a ban Tuesday, March 17. Across the country local governments are tackling the problem.
However as my title notes, solving this problem goes beyond simply banning the product. For example, New York’s very own Ecovative design grows 100% biodegradable “polystyrene” and “plastic” materials out of mushrooms. These products are an innovative solution that have applications for packaging, surfboards, construction materials and more. Listen to their story on NPR’s Marketplace.
In Beacon, New York local entrepreneur and owner of Zero to Go, Sarah Womer designed a whole business model around minimizing waste. Her business is creating ripples in the Hudson Valley, through education and contracting with large events to minimize their impact . Zero to Go serves as a wholesaler of compostable food wares and therefore minimizes the cost barriers for large events and local businesses to purchase environmentally responsible products. Read more about Zero to Go in the Poughkeepsie Journal, “Recycle, reuse, renew mission of Zero to Go.”
Alternatives to polystyrene exist. Businesses around the world are reinventing how we design products and deal with waste. Our policy makers at the local, state and federal levels should create the conditions for eco-entrepreneurs to flourish. Designing policies that incentivize the use, affordability and innovation of products to solve our global polystryrene and plastic pollution problem should become a priority. What is missing is the political will to adequately address the problem. It is my hope that emerging businesses like Zero to Go and Ecovative design will help policymakers see the dollars and cents.