It's late, too late to cook, and i'm heading home to a bare fridge with a rumbling stomach and spinning head. Takeout Greek it is. But any spinach pie fantasies turn sour when the woman behind the counter hands me my meal encased in perhaps the most maligned symbol of our disposable dependency: a styrofoam takeout container. I head to the subway, vegetarian dinner #5 in hand, feeling like I might as well have a bludgeoned seal tucked under my arm.
Light 'n' white expanded polystyrene (aka styrofoam) and its rigid sister, polystyrene (think #6 yogurt cups and disposable cutlery), have long drawn the ire of enviro heads, not only because of the toxic fumes whipped up in their production, but also because of their tendency to go straight to landfill.
But now that the city is finally poised to start recycling the stuff in 2008, the question on some lips is, why should we bother taking on the costs of recycling the polluting plastic when dozens of American cities are banning takeout uses of it altogether? (San Fran's just took effect last month.)
Farrah Khan is the founder of NaturoPack, a newby not-for-profit promoting the use of environmentally friendly packaging. She says the realization that recycling was no panacea for the plastic motivated the group's Get It To Go Green campaign aimed at jettisoning the material from T.O. restaurants.
"There's really no viable recycling solution to styrofoam. You can't take a styrofoam container and make it into another styrofoam container," says Khan.
That means your foam coffee cup might be "downcycled" into insulation fibre, CD cases or those disposable plastic trays for bedding plants, but every takeout container you get is still made with virgin polystyrene plastic. And that's a seriously polluting endeavour.
Sure, it's no longer blown using ozone-layer-depleting CFCs, but polystyrene's still made of a nasty brew of petroleum-based chemicals like cancer-causing benzene and styrene, a known neurotoxin and possible human carcinogen.
According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, low levels of styrene turn up in all kinds of foods that never had contact with the plastic, like nuts, fruits and veggies, thanks to styrene emissions into air, water and soil from manufacturing and incineration.
It's also leaching from our packaging into our food. An older Health Canada investigation found that the chemical migrates from styrene-based packaging into "a wide range of foods." But the report concludes that "styrene is generally present at levels of less than 10 mg/kg," good enough to get the department's thumbs-up for ongoing public use, at least for the time being.
In the fall it was added to Health Canada's list of 4,000 chemicals that should be re-examined for potential health and environmental impacts. It didn't, however, make the Tories' first cut of 200 toxins primed for immediate reassessment.
So say we ban the stuff. What next? Joe De Sousa of the Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Association (CPRA), which recycles 400,000 kilograms of polystyrene a year from a dozen municipalities, clearly sees the brighter side of recycling the plastic and cautions against leaping into biodegradables, which, he notes, could contaminate recycled plastics if tossed in the blue bin instead of green bins.
"The questions that need to be answered before banning polystyrene packaging in restaurants are, what products will [it] be replaced by, and what energy or natural resources were consumed to manufacture them?"
Both valid questions that Jennifer Wright, founder of Green Shift, Toronto's original force behind converting hundreds of businesses to biodegradable takeout containers and eco practices, doesn't shy away from. She openly acknowledges some of the shortcomings of sugar-cane- and corn-based substitutes but says they still come out on top. One drawback is that sugar cane containers come all the way from Asia, but the products Green Shift promotes are guaranteed pesticide-free.
Wright is also the first to admit to the weirdness of Cargill Dow having the patent on corn-based plastics (the kind used in clear biodegradable takeout cups) and squeezing out smaller players.
"Really big agriculture will be the next challenge, very similar to what we have with Big Oil," says Wright. "It'll be nice to see the bioplastic market divided."