It kills birds and fish. It lives on in landfills. And 850,000 tons of it are produced each year.

And yet, plastic foam (aka polystyrene) is used in multiple ways across the planet.

Our “Friend or Foam” series has thus far focused on where it comes from, what it’s made off, how we use it, its negative attributes and possible alternatives.

Now, just in time for Thanksgiving leftovers that will undoubtedly be stored in thousands of plastic foam containers in refrigerators all over Hawaii, here’s the “friend” side. The companies that manufacture polystyrene products have a much more positive view of plastic foam, as you might expect. And they spend lots of money trying to get their message out.

For this story, we contacted two container packaging companies — Illinois-based Pactiv Corporation and Michigan-based Dart Container Corporation — to find out about plastic foam’s uses.

The companies were recommended to us by the American Chemistry Council, which also provided us with other helpful information.

Here are a few things they’d like you to know about plastic foam and the debate over it:

Sanitary, Sturdy, Safe

Polystyrene is cheaper and lighter than aluminum, molded fiber, starch and paper, according to Environmental Facts About Polystyrene Foam.

“In addition to Polystyrene Foam’s environmental benefit, it is: functional and versatile; economical; sanitary, sturdy and safe (FDA Accepted); environmentally friendly as well as resource efficient,” says Pactiv Corporation.

One other benefit: “There is no evidence that polystyrene foam bans reduce litter. A recent study of results from a ban on polystyrene foam in Portland, Oregon, shows that the ban has not been successful and should be repealed.”

Better Insulation

Plastic-coated paperboard cups don’t insulate as efficiently as foam cups, according to Green Care: Environmental Facts About Dart Foam Products

“The report will disappoint gourmet coffee customers who believe they are doing something ‘good for the environment’ by choosing to use two plastic-coated paperboard cups for one hot beverage instead of a single polystyrene foam cup,” says Green Care: Foodservice Packaging Life Cycle Inventory.

Another benefit: “Polystyrene foam is composed of carbon and hydrogen,” says Dart Container Corporation. “When properly incinerated polystyrene foam leaves only carbon dioxide, water, and trace amounts of ash.”

And another: “Dart polystyrene foam products are not manufactured with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or any other ozone-depleting chemicals.”

Less Filling

Plastic foam is not filling landfills as quickly as you think, says Pactiv Corporation. In fact, these products “are 95 percent air. Similar product performance with solid plastic or paper may require four times more material.”

“All packaging materials represented 31.2 percent of municipal solid waste generated in 2005,” according to Polystyrene Facts You Should Know. “Paper and paperboard packaging represented 15.9 percent, while plastics packaging represented only 5.6 percent of that municipal solid waste. All polystyrene packaging typically comprises less than 1.0 percent of municipal solid waste that is generated.”

Another benefit: “All materials selected for use in these products meet stringent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards for use in food contact packaging and are recognized as safe for use.”

Prevents Disease

Polystyrene helps provide “peace of mind for parents, teachers, hospital patients and their loved ones,” according to Polystyrene Food and Health Safety.

That’s because they can rely on the sanitary surfaces of disposable polystyrene foodservice products “to help ensure the safety of prepared foods that are served on them. Public health officials have recognized the important sanitary benefits of disposable foodservice products.”

Added benefit: “National environmental health officials passed a resolution stating that restricting the use of disposable cups, plates and containers would have a potentially adverse impact on disease prevention.”

Microwave Safe

The American Chemistry Council says, “Because plastics serve so many purposes on the kitchen, many consumers get confused about which products are right for the microwave. This list of FAQs can help you educate your readers about which plastics to use and how to use them properly.”


I got an e-mail from Johns Hopkins alleging that microwaving food in plastic containers releases dioxin. Is this true?

No. This is an e-mail hoax that has been circulating the Internet for years. Dioxins are a group of compounds that can be produced by combustion at very high temperatures.

‘Polystyrene Gets the Job Done

It’s amazing just how many products are made with polystyrene.

“The most recognizable forms of polystyrene packaging are: Expanded Polystyrene that is used to make cups, bowls, plates, trays, clamshells, meat trays and egg cartons as well as protective packaging for shipping electronics and other fragile items,” according to Polystyrene Fact Sheet With Myths. “High Impact Polystyrene that is used in products such as cutlery, yoghurt and cottage cheese containers, drinking cups and clear bakery and produce containers.”

“Polystyrene gets the job done!” says the Canadian Plastic Industry Association.

Well, there you have it.

What else can we tell you about the use of plastic foam in the islands?

Read our related stories about plastic foam in Hawaii:

About the Author