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Alternatives to Styrofoam: 10+ Easy Ways to Kick the Habit

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Styrofoam is an environmental nightmare. There are alternatives to Styrofoam, though, so there’s no reason to keep using it.

According to the EPA*, Americans throw away 25,000,000,000 petroleum-based foam cups every year. That's BILLION. Here's how you can lower your use of polystyrene. #everydayisearthday

Is it Styrofoam?

First, let’s clear this up. You know how you blow your nose with a kleenex? Kleenex is actually a brand name that has been adopted as part of our vernacular. Same with Styrofoam. Styrofoam is actually a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company and is primarily used to refer to their polystyrene building materials.

While it’s common for us to talk about Styrofoam cups and containers, if we’re referring to the material, it’s polystyrene.

Polystyrene cup doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

It’s crazy.

According to the EPA*, Americans throw away 25,000,000,000 petroleum-based foam cups every year. That’s billion, with a B. 500 years from now, the foam coffee cups we use today will still be sitting in a landfill.

If that’s not enough to make you stop the Styrofoam habit right now, I don’t know what is. So, here’s the challenge: say no to foam.

Alternatives to Styrofoam Packaging

This will be either super easy for you or really hard – especially if you order takeout on a regular basis in certain states (ahem, Hawaii). While some communities have banned polystyrene (Styrofoam is a brand name for polystyrene), others continue to allow restaurants and food service companies to serve meals and drinks in foam containers. Foam containers that just. Don’t. Go. Away.

Here’s what you can do about it.

  • If you frequent a restaurant that uses polystyrene containers, bring your own container for your meal and let the owner know that you want them to make a change. If restaurant owners don’t know that it’s important to their patrons, they might not make a change. Remind them that there are plenty of good alternatives to Styrofoam, and that customers would be pleased to see them making the change.
  • Take the time to compliment a restaurant that’s using compostable takeout containers.
  • Take your own beverage container to conferences and events where foam cups are commonly used. Bonus: you can use it for water, too, and eliminate plastic bottles as well.
  • When you order items online, ask the company not to use foam peanuts. If you do receive items in foam peanuts, recycle them with your own shipping or take them to a mail center that can use them.
  • Same goes for shippers – think wineries – that might use a foam packer to protect their product en route.
  • If you buy eggs, opt for the paperboard cartons rather than foam (or plastic). When those paperboard cartons get too floppy to reuse, compost them.
  • Skip the arts and crafts that start with foam cones or balls. There are paper mache alternatives to Styrofoam for crafting.
  • I’m sure this goes without saying, but if you’re planning an event, and simply cannot wash dishes, use compostable eco-friendly paper goods. See it as an opportunity to set a good example for the less knowledgeable!
  • If you’re planning a vacation, do a bit of research to find out if there is a place to rent beach gear. No need to buy a foam cooler or beach toys with the intent to discard them before you head home.
  • If you’re shopping for kids (or grandkids) skip the foam toys.
  • Avoid beanbag chairs. They’re filled with tiny polystyrene pellets.
  • Mushrooms and Asian pears often come in foam packaging. Opt for brands that use cardboard packaging instead.
  • Shop your local butcher counter instead of buying meat and fish on styrofoam trays.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

16 comments… add one
  • Liz Aug 1, 2011, 5:27 pm

    all great ideas. This is one of my pet hates, my work provides plastic cups for water and paper cups for hot drinks, but its still unnecessary as they also provide a cupboard full of ceramic cups and dishwasher that runs daily no matter how full it is. I have been gently suggesting to people that they use the real cups and its seems to be making a difference. The other problem is when you buy something and open the box to find polystyrene packaging. I don’t know why some companies are still using it when others have changed to molded cardboard instead. I do try to send an email to the company when this happens, but its a bit late when you’ve already bought the product. I need to make a list of offenders…. Bubblewrap is another one, I keep every bit that I’m sent, just in case, but I can never use it all, what should I do with it??? I hate plastic, but it seems to be impossible to avoid it completely. Thanks for listening!

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 2, 2011, 1:08 pm

      And you know, if your employer simply stopped *offering disposable cups, people would figure it out! Good for you for spreading the word.

    • JYell Feb 25, 2019, 12:28 pm

      Insulation for pet or greenhouses.

  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart Aug 2, 2011, 7:17 am

    This one should be fairly easy for me. We don’t get much takeout. :o)

  • April Aug 2, 2011, 6:37 pm

    As a former restaurant employee, I wonder how many restaurants will let you do that because of the health code. Maybe you can get around it if they put it on a plate and then you put it in your container. Otherwise I don’t see how they could legally let your dish of unknown origin and cleanliness come into their kitchen and potentially contaminate their product. Same with drink refills. But maybe I’m overthinking it.

    One idea for packaging materials is to offer them on freecycle or craigslist if you have more than you can use.

    As for the cups at work, have you talked to the people in charge of ordering or budgeting and pointing out the wasted money on those cups? After all, even if they don’t care about the environment, money talks.

    • Living Large Aug 11, 2011, 11:50 am

      April,

      You’re right. I read an article on this once that restaurants will not typically allow you to bring in your own dishes because of the health code. I wonder what the answer to this is?

    • Jeff Jan 13, 2014, 1:18 pm

      Unfortunately health codes need a serious reworking. A restaurant I frequent was given a fine by the health department because I left buckets there for organic waste for my compost bin(outside of the preparation area) because my city doesn’t currently offer green waste service for businesses and the owner didn’t want it going to a landfill. Apparently in Los Angeles that’s a huge no no, but I highly doubt that a covered container with food waste in it or a customer’s own food containers would put anyone’s health at risk.

  • Alexandra Aug 3, 2011, 6:47 am

    This challenge is easy because we already say a resounding NO to styrofoam.

  • Melanie Haiken Aug 3, 2011, 7:55 pm

    I am always so distressed when a restaurant brings out styrofoam containers, but I never know what to say. Often my solution is to try to cram everything into one container so at least we aren’t using much. Anyone have a solution to this dilemma?

  • Styrofoam Aug 8, 2011, 8:26 pm

    You’re right. There are several ways of recycling Styrofoam products instead of discarding them away as waste materials. You can also try shipping them to recycling centers who can make better use of them as an industrial insulator or as packaging material.

  • merr Aug 24, 2011, 6:26 pm

    I LOVE this idea – and I LOVE One Small Change! It’s terrific- truly.

  • jess Oct 23, 2013, 3:21 pm

    I live in new England where everyone is addicted to dudunkin donuts and the streets are littered with their Styrofoam cups!!!!! It makes me crazy. If I treat myself to a coffee, I bring my own nedium sized cup and they charge me for a small! Save $ and the planet 🙂

  • Miki Oct 23, 2013, 4:22 pm

    I met a guy once who was in the biodegradable container business. I believe his stuff was made out of corn starch. He told me something interesting. He said to still be wary of “biodegradable” products. Everything will eventually degrade, even the Titanic is slowly disappearing. He said the bigger issue is what compounds arise from products degrading. Apparently, alot of products can degrade into components that are harmful and in no way benefit the planet, just because they degrade faster.

  • Lora Oct 25, 2013, 5:50 pm

    I found this great flow chart for the avoidance of plastic products in every day life. Since plastic NEVER decomposes (it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until they’re too small to notice) I’m trying to go plastic free. It’s very hard but I’m getting better at it. See the flow chart here!
    https://hateandanger.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/plastic-detox-deplastify-your-life/

  • Martha Arntson Oct 29, 2013, 1:42 am

    I hate plastic and Styrofoam! I still find the beer or sodas in those rings that don’t get clipped before blowing away into the ocean to mangle the birds feet and beaks in! Drives me nuts!

  • Robert Figueroa Jan 24, 2018, 5:04 pm

    Let’s get a petition going targeting the fast food companies (ESPECIALLY DUNKIN DONUTS) to kick styrofoam (polystyrene) products ONCE AND FOR ALL! If anyone can point me to a petition I’m happy to spread it with my groups here in South Florida.
    P.S. Here’s one! https://petitions.moveon.org/s/q7mRvo

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