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Recycle Utah wants polystyrene to go

Since 1991, Recycle Utah, a Park City-based nonprofit organization, has been on a mission to help community members lead sustainable lives.

So far, its staff and volunteers collect recycling, promote water conservation and would love nothing more than to implement a zero-waste plan in Summit County, according to its mission statement.

For the past year and half, Recycle Utah has spearheaded a movement to ban plastic grocery bags, not only in the local Park City area but throughout the state.

While this campaign is well under way, a new target is in Recycle Utah’s cross hairs — polystyrene, more commonly known by its brand name, Styrofoam.

"We continuously come across a lot of information about how polystyrene affects the health of people and the environment," said Mary Closser, environmental educator for Recycle Utah. "It’s a petroleum-based plastic and is found in many things — including rubber, plastic and boats, and what we’re concerned with is polystyrene foam."

Closser said she, Recycle Utah’s outreach coordinator Tori Sowul and executive director Insa Riepen want to bring the dangers of polystyrene to the attention of the general public.

"We want to do this especially since people use a lot of polystyrene containers as to-go containers at restaurants," Closser said. "We also still use them, somewhat, in school cafeterias in Park City."

Sowul has conducted some in-depth research about the dangers of polystyrene and is disturbed at her findings.

"Technology for recycling polystyrene is available, but it’s not implemented in this country because it’s very expensive and a huge hassle to set up," she said.

"Also, because it is so light, it has a tendency to break into small pieces that fly away and it gets into the environment," Sowul said. "It’s not biodegradable and takes an estimated 500 years to go away. So it’s sitting in our landfills, and, more dangerously, it is clogging our drains."

Polystyrene has also found its way into the world’s oceans.

"An article came out in the New York Times [a few weeks ago] about how plastic waste made up of polystyrene tends to create huge plastic islands and one has been discovered to be the size of the state of Texas," Sowul said. "Recent studies show that these islands, which also include plastic fish nets, bags, water bottles and buoys, take up 40 percent of the ocean’s surface."

On a micro level, polystyrene is being eaten by marine animals and birds.

"They think it’s food and it chokes them or they can’t digest it," Sowul said.

Polystyrene also contains oxidants that cause liver and stomach damage, and it has other abnormalities that threaten the availability of nutritious food.

"The chemicals from polystyrene also seep into our food when you put hot food in to-go containers," Sowul said. "Unfortunately, the material is a great insulator, which is why people use it for hot foods or to keep drinks cold."

contaminating our leftovers and seeping into other food sources, polystyrene is working its way up the food chain, Sowul said.

"It also irritates the skin, eyes, and the upper respiratory and the gastrointestinal tracts," she said. "Chronic exposure can affect the central nervous system and manifests in depression, headaches, fatigue and weakness."

Furthermore, styrene, which is used to make polystyrene, is a suspected carcinogen.

"That finding was recorded by the National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research," Sowul said. "They found 57 identified chemical byproducts that are released when polystyrene burns."

These are some of the reasons why Recycle Utah wants to wean people off polystyrene and implement a ban.

"New York just passed a ban last winter and it’s happening all over the country," Sowul said. "Seattle, Portland, Ore., and numerous countries around the world including Haiti have banned polystyrene.

"Since it has been banned in these areas, you know it must cause some serious problems," she said.

Locally, some restaurants have begun using alternatives to polystyrene take-home containers.

"PC Bagel also uses paper [boxes], as does Red Rock Brewery and Squatters," Closser said. "Paper is the best thing to use, because it is biodegradable, compostable and, if it’s not contaminated with a lot of food, is recyclable."

So, the question Recycle Utah wanted to answer was why some restaurants and schools have switched to paper and others haven’t.

The main issue is price. A case of 200 polystyrene boxes that measure 8 inches by 8 inches is $21.10 and a case of paper boxes that are the same size costs $82.37, Closser said. "School trays are the same dilemma. A case of polystyrene food trays is $15 and a case of paper trays is $56."

The secret of successfully banning polystyrene is to get the public on board, Sowul said.

"I do understand why restaurants and schools use polystyrene containers," she said. "it’s because of supply and demand, but people can change and I’m sure once there is enough of a demand, the supply will be cheaper."

For more information about Recycle Utah and its campaign to ban polystyrene, visit http://www.recycleutah.org .


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