One man's losing struggle against the evils of polystyrene

It's fashionable to hate styrofoam, for some good and respectable reasons worth mentioning here. But I have a personal hatred of it that may transcend mere environmental husbandry.

When I was a kid, the only styrofoam you ever saw was in coolers and flotation devices, pool toys, things you didn't think of as disposable. You usually saw it around the water; even then, the horrible squawk of it against wet skin, especially mine, offered the sensation of electric demons stripping one's spine.

Though it tended to accompany outdoor fun, it seemed disreputable, corrupted with gray smudges that couldn't be washed off, hideously squeaky, and easily broken. Only after that was it mass-produced for disposable use; suddenly things came packed in styrofoam peanuts and sandwiches came encased to styrofoam caskets and coffee came in styrofoam cups. Styrofoam became, for the first time, trash of the most durable sort.

But even if it were made of pure mulch, I'd still dislike the feel of it; as far as I'm concerned, the quickest way to ruin a refreshing Coca-Cola is to pour it into a styrofoam cup.

Here I should note that Dow, which invented Styrofoam (TM) gets annoyed that the term is used generically, to describe the white stuff coffee cups are made of—that's a particular extruded and puffed-up sort of "polystyrene," they insist. Dow's trademarked invention was a refined polystyrene substance capitalized as Styrofoam, which was first used in Coast-Guard life rafts in 1942. It was the highest and best use for the stuff, I think; it was declared "unsinkable." Since V-J Day, the reputation of polystyrene has declined.

The people who invented Styrofoam want to be sure we don't use their word to describe the cheap, but insidiously eternal, crap we use every day. My impression is that people who don't mind using polystyrene don't recognize that word, and even some industry sources use "styrofoam" generically, but to be fair I'll try to go with "polystyrene." Which is roughly the sound it makes when you twist it.

Industry sources say the manufacture of polystyrene is not nearly as harmful to the ozone layer as it used to be. If you want to read some expertly specious obfuscation, read some of the pro-polystyrene industry websites. The American Chemistry Council's website, in particular, reads like legal briefs written by a team of rapacious attorneys. They can make big-oil lobbyists sound like NPR reporters.

They insist that styrofoam accounts for less than one percent of the nation's waste. They drive the point home under the heading, "The Waste That Wasn't." But they measure the nation's waste purely by weight. Polystyrene is plastic pumped up with gas. It hardly weighs anything. Show me a styrofoam SUV, and I bet I can pick it up. If they're able to perfect a weightless polystyrene—perhaps infused with helium—it will, by their own standards, not exist at all.

The "Council" acknowledges that polystyrene doesn't really break down, but makes that fact sound wonderful. The pro-polystyrene website even questions the wisdom of God's creation, raising suspicions about how the planet has been dealing with waste for four billion years: "Biodegradation of materials has hidden costs, the creation of potentially harmful liquid and gaseous byproducts that could contaminate ground water and air...." We'd be much safer, therefore, if our trees were made of polystyrene.

Polystyrene won't ever do that. Unlike wood and wood-based products, polystyrene just sits there, gloriously, forever. Some sources say it lasts for "hundreds" of years. Other sources say it lasts for "thousands" of years. No one will ever live long enough to find out.

There are other points of view. Some claim just touching polystyrene can cause cancer in those who like to use it. I'll stay out of that fight. It may well be wishful thinking.

The reason I dislike polystyrene is, in part, personal jealousy. When I'm dead, when my children and grandchildren and all the people I will ever meet are dead, forgotten, our bones and our names disintegrated into nothing recognizable as human, this one styrofoam coffee cup, tossed away after breakfast, will still be a styrofoam coffee cup, regardless of whether it's left deep in a landfill or dropped by a highway, still waiting for that refill of coffee.

Millions more of them, just like it, are discarded every day. In all, there are literally trillions of them, including the first one you ever saw, discarded after a single use, and lodged forever in the earth's crust. There's nothing else to do with them, unless you take them home and wash them and put them in your cabinet. They can't be recycled, at least not in any way that makes sense; the ACC Big Brother patiently explains to us that it's just not cost-effective: "recycling food-service polystyrene does not make economic sense at this time..." Considering that this extruded substance is so extremely cheap to begin with, and cheapness is its main appeal, they're probably right. "In business," the ACC reminds us, "economics rule over emotion...."

Styrofoam has been subject to limited bans in some states, like Maine, where they don't even allow you to sell fish bait in styrofoam containers. McDonald's, you may recall, was persuaded back in 1990 to stop serving sandwiches in polystyrene boxes, and switched to cardboard.

You'd think local businesses would be even less likely to salute polystyrene than an impersonal multinational corporation that has made a totem of the bottom line. But some Knoxville restaurants embrace polystyrene even more enthusiastically than the pre-enlightened McDonald's. If you want a fountain drink at most Knoxville cafes, pal, you're getting some styrofoam, more than there ever was in a Big Mac box.

About 10 years ago, after the McDonald's controversy, one of my favorite local lunch spots in West Knoxville, a cafe half a century old, abruptly switched to styrofoam plates. I tried, but somehow I could never get used to cutting into a plate of eggs, over easy, served on styrofoam. The marks left by my fork left tiny ravines of yolk. I stopped going there for breakfast, but came back for lunch, which I thought might be more agreeable.

But my first set of onion rings, served au polystyrene, melted through the plate to the table. My lunch looked like a reckless gamma-ray experiment at ORNL. I noted the matter to the waitress, a sensible lady I recognized from years past: Wouldn't the onion rings themselves, having melted through the plate, I asked, be likely to have molten plastic on them? She picked up the plate without a word and at length came back, and grimly brought another order. On another polystyrene plate, but this one with an intervening layer of napkins. I suspected it was the same onion rings. She offered no apology. She seemed to tolerate my complaint as you might tolerate a sexual insult from a slob, for the tips he might leave. If you're not willing to eat molten plastic now and then, you're no trouper, no sport, no real American.

Styrofoam meal boxes take it to the next level. The American doggie bag has become, by apparent universal consent, a thermal polystyrene box. I don't get it. Leftovers go in the refrigerator. Styrofoam helps us keep food warm until we put it in the fridge to retard spoilage. Wouldn't take-home styrofoam boxes keep the food warmer longer, rendering spoilage more likely? And by preventing it from pre-cooling in your car, won't it make your refrigerator work harder to cool it down?

We cain't ‘splain it. It's just what we do, and we ain't a-gonna stop.

There used to be one sandwich shop on Clinch Avenue that I particularly liked, except for one thing. The sandwiches were tasty, the prices were easy, the counter service was speedy. When I was in too much of a hurry to sit down somewhere for lunch, I would pop in and order a sandwich. Here's what they'd do, 1-2-3. They'd make the sandwich. They'd wrap it up snugly in paper. And then, without expressing any interest in how far you were going with it, they'd snap the sandwich into a polystyrene coffin.

Why? I asked, once. They didn't really know. It was just what they did.

You may have learned before I did that it's not expeditious to talk environmental politics, theoretical health, existential philosophy, or mere logic, to busy working people during the lunch rush. But I wanted to mention that I could save them the expense of a box, because I didn't need to store the sandwich for any period of time, or stack it neatly in a cabinet. I had no intention of sailing the sandwich in the river; styrofoam's "unsinkability" attribute was entirely wasted on me. I didn't need to pack it for a picnic with the confidence that it would be warm hours later. I just wanted to eat the sandwich.

I got in the habit of saying, quickly, "no box, please," and, sometimes, just as a special favor to me, they'd leave the last step off. It became a running joke. They had hundreds of customers every day, and I was the wacky No Box Man. However, I had the impression that my special need caused them some mental anguish. They'd stop, like checking a golf swing, their countenance darkened, and for a moment they seemed to forget what they were doing.

Often they'd put it in the box, anyway. I really don't need the styrofoam box, I'd respond. The lady kindly took the sandwich out, said "Oh, sorry," handed the sandwich to me, and threw her clean, new box in the trash.

It would have been slightly quicker, and slightly cheaper, for them to have just handed me the paper-wrapped sandwich. But I came to realize it was just what they did. With some regrets, I stopped going there.

The American Chemistry Council insists that litter is "aberrant consumer behavior"; they can do nothing about it. Still, there's a certain amount of trash that gets dropped, inadvertently or not, on the American roadside. None of it's good, but most of it's paper, and disappears in a short time. A napkin may not survive a single rain. Glass is worse, but it cracks and shatters in the weather. Scavengers and DUI crews pick up aluminum cans. Styrofoam blows around.

A few months ago, I went exploring in one of the last large undeveloped tracts along Kingston Pike, an overgrown area where it was hard to pick paths through. The woods were lush, dark, and full of polystyrene: cups, sandwich boxes, packing material. Some of the polystyrene might have been 30 years old. Dropped carelessly long ago by West Knoxvillians, perhaps long dead.

Though the percentage may seem small now, every day the planet Earth is a slightly higher percentage polystyrene than it was the day before. We use a significant amount of our industry, and our petroleum, to make the world more polystyrene than ever. It's just what we do. Get in line, Mr. No Box Man.