LETTER TO THE EDITOR
POLYSTYRENE PRODUCTS STILL HARMFUL, WASTEFUL AND POLLUTING
I refer to the letter “Polystyrene Use No Threat To Climate” (http://www.nst.com.my/Current_News/NST/articles/19psfo/Article/index_html, 18 Feb 2010) and wish to point out the sophistry of the arguments put forward in the said letter.
The only reason polystyrene food packaging was widely used during the Thaipusam celebration is not because it is a well-loved and health-giving form of packaging, but because consumers were not offered any alternatives. There were no regulations or incentives in place to discourage the use of plastic and polystyrene products at the said event. 20 years ago, banana leaves and metal ‘thali’ plates would have been the order of the day, but polystyrene packaging has since become the cheapest, though by no means the best, option.
It is also a myth that polystyrene products are environmentally safe simply because they are declared ‘recyclable’. Putting a container with a mobius loop embossed on it in a recycling bin is no guarantee that it will be recycled. Not only are there no facilities in Malaysia that will collect or accept polystyrene for recycling, it is common knowledge that polystyrene is not recycled once contaminated with food.
It is unfortunate that recycling is often promoted as an end in itself without regard as to whether it is worth the time, expense, energy and resources. A product that is ‘recyclable’ does not necessarily have post-consumer recycled content, nor does it mean it will be recycled upon disposal.
In many instances, recycling would not even make environmental or economic sense. Products such as polystyrene and plastic bags have notoriously low scrap value and it would cost more to recycle the said products than to manufacture new ones. In many cases, recycling such products would require more energy and generate more pollution. Clearly, reducing the use of disposable products is still the most important and effective way of preventing and managing waste in the first place.
The argument that styrofoam is harmless because it is ‘90% air’ is misleading and untruthful. Industrial and vehicle emissions can be categorized as ‘air’ too but remains harmful to health and environmental safety. When styrofoam is fatally ingested by wildlife and marine animals, can we continue to argue that no harm is done to the animal because all they have consumed is ‘mostly air’?
It is precisely because of its lightness that polystyrene foam products end up becoming litter. Carried by wind and water, even the most scrupulously disposed of polystyrene foam product may end up in oceans, waterways and the digestive tracts of animals.
The writer’s argument that polystyrene products are safe is corroborated almost entirely by reports from the plastics and styrene products industry, which of course raises questions as to the neutrality and impartiality of the said reports. The US Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, has found short and long-term health effects related to styrene exposure.
Polystyrene products today contain no chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) not due to any magnanimous initiative on the part of the plastics industry, but because of a worldwide ban on the ozone-depleting substance. However, polystyrene and plastics are still made from petroleum, a non-renewable, fast-disappearing and heavily polluting resource. Also, benzene, a material used in the production of polystyrene, is a known human carcinogen.
If, as the writer argued, the problem of pollution and littering lies not with the product but with cultural attitudes, then by banning or restricting the sale and use of polystyrene products, we can greatly reduce the opportunity for the creation of litter. When there are effective deterrents against the use of disposable packaging, then consumers would be more likely to switch to non-disposable tableware and food and beverage containers, or at the very least, to biodegradable packaging.
It is for good reason that institutions, cities and countries around the world have banned or severely curtailed the use of polystyrene products. We can take a step in the right direction by instituting public education measures and implementing and enforcing laws to reduce waste at its source and curb the sale and use of disposable packaging.
WONG EE LYNN
Malaysian Nature Society