Te Ipukarea Society has been campaigning over the past two years against the use of Styrofoam food containers by food vendors. We are pleased to be able to say that a number of these proactive food sellers have taken note of our concerns and changed to biodegradeable or re-useable containers or plates and cutlery.
Some environmentally aware retailers have stopped selling Styrofoam containers. However, there are still a large number of food vendors, and some retail outlets, that have not yet made the change.
As a result, Cook Islanders are still being served hot, steaming foods in Styrofoam food containers. These clam shell-type containers are still commonly used at Punanga Nui Market, Muri Night Market, and other events that attract food vendors. There is a growing number of people also selling fast food that they deliver to your work place, and many of these are also using Styrofoam containers.
There are two main reasons we should not be using Styrofoam: our health and our environment.
Styrofoam is particularly unsafe when heated or used with hot food or liquid. In contact with heat, it will start to melt or break down, causing the chemicals: dioxin, benzene and styrene, to seep into the liquid or foods.
The chemicals found in Styrofoam are possible carcinogens and, according to the International Agency on Research on Cancer and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, can cause a variety of cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer. You should certainly never reheat food in the microwave in a Styrofoam container.
The dioxins in Styrofoam are a form of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP). They can cause immune and hormonal problems and affect development of unborn babies. When Styrofoam is burnt in your rubbish fires, dioxins are released into the environment leading to air pollution and health problems when inhaled by people and animals.
Another chemical in Styrofoam, styrene, can mimic the properties of the female hormone, oestrogen, and cause thyroid problems as well as menstrual irregularities. It can also cause related health problems such as fatigue, headache, depression and kidney ailments.
If the public health impacts of Styrofoam are not enough to put you off eating your food out of it, perhaps the environmental impact will persuade you.
Styrofoam’s environmental effects are well documented. It takes 500 years to decompose, and it takes up 25-30 per cent of the space in our world’s landfills. In addition, our waterways and oceans are suffering thanks to Styrofoam waste. As it breaks into smaller particles it is eaten by fish, causing them to eventually die. A total of 57 chemical by-productsis released during the manufacture of Styrene, polluting the air and waterways.
At least one Caribbean Island nation, Guyana, has banned Styrofoam, and another, Dominica, is working on a ban as well. Hawaii is considering a ban by 2020. A large number of cities in the US have also banned the use of Styrofoam for hot foods and drinks.
As a nation, we could also join this growing number of places around the world and ban the importation of these Styrofoam containers.
Meanwhile, if you are concerned about what Styrofoam can do to your health, and our environment, ask your food vendor to use readily available biodegradable alternatives, or better still, take your own food container with you.
This weekly column is supplied by Te Ipukarea Society. It looks at conservation and environmental matters of interest to the Cook Islands.