#TOAWasteChallenge Part 3: Reduce packaging waste and Styrofoam use 2


New meaning to “This tastes like Styrofoam”

About a year and a half ago, a huge municipal truck pulled up to my neighbor’s house, tossed out four or five jumbo recycling bins and sped away. Only two people lived in that house at the time; you know you too would be dying to know what the heck they could possibly be recycling! “Oh,” she told me a few days later, “my husband is doing [one of those weight loss programs that delivers your meals precooked, portioned and frozen] and they send the food packages sandwiched in giant Styrofoam blocks, so we needed more recycling bins to fit them in.”

polystyrene block

A polystyrene block

My heart sank. This was one of the reasons I had been so mad at my city for sending out mailings that said residents could put things like Styrofoam and plastic bags in their recycling. Just a few months earlier I had written about visiting the recycling plant and finding out that those items were not, in fact, recycled.

Well, the city has since let residents know not to put items into the bins that the recycler isn’t going to process, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still using those items. At least after the initial confusion, there’s now some awareness. In fact, readers have requested that, for the #TOAWasteChallenge, we cover reducing Styrofoam packaging use. Ask, and ye shall receive!

(Not sure what this whole waste challenge thing is about? Peruse the post: One simple mind hack to reduce waste. And share how you’re fighting waste in the comments below and/or over at Facebook and Twitter with #TOAWasteChallenge.)

Styrofoam is like Kleenex

“Styrofoam” is a brand name, just like “Kleenex” is a brand of facial tissue. But, like Kleenex, people have been using the brand name when they’re talking about the general category for a long time, as in, “Please bring me a Kleenex” or “Ugh, why do these toys have to be packaged in so much Styrofoam?”

Polystyrene recycle symbol

The recycling symbol for polystyrene

The name of the stuff itself is “polystyrene.” It’s made of synthetic polymers. In other words, it’s a form of plastic. You may be most familiar with it as those cushy packing peanuts that explode out of a shipping box when you open it. As a kid, I called them “ghost poopies.” Not far off, considering what I think of them now! But did you know that polystyrene is also used to make everything from yogurt cups to disposable razors?

And that’s part of the problem:

  • Polystyrene, like all plastic, is ubiquitous and much of it is single-use, which presents all the issues from the last post, “Reduce single use.”
  • Hydroflourocarbons, compounds with global warming potential many times higher than carbon dioxide, are used in manufacturing much of the polystyrene we use.
  • Polystyrene does not degrade for hundreds of years and, like other plastics, never biodegrades completely.
  • We humans use the stuff so much partly because it is very light, but the fact that it blows around so easily (and floats) poses a problem to animals, particularly sea life, who mistake it for food.
  • The chemical constituents of polystyrene “readily migrate” from packaging into food and drink. That means they leach into that coffee you’re drinking or the takeout you’re eating. Those chemicals have a wide range of possible nasty effects.
  • Finally, while polystyrene technically can be recycled, it’s usually not. It’s very difficult to recycle and it’s of such a low density (light) that it’s very hard to collect enough of it to make recycling it financially worthwhile for most recycling companies.

Polystyrene infographic

So readers want to know how to reduce polystyrene waste. Here are some simple swaps and tips for getting this stuff out of your life!

Most people’s primary use of polystyrene is in food packaging, so…

  • Instead of picking up the foam coffee cup, take along a reusable travel mug for picking up your joe on the run, or take an actual ceramic mug to work to use in the breakroom.
  • For takeout, talk to the restaurant about bringing your own containers to fill. I’m a fan of stainless steel tiffins, but there are lots of options. If you’re lucky, you live in a forward-thinking city where many restaurants have already thought about reducing waste from their businesses…ask around!
  • Finally, forgo the plastic cutlery. If you’re headed home, you don’t need it anyway. If you’re eating on the run, bring a reusable bamboo set or just a random fork from home.

Stainless steel tiffin

‘Tis the season, so you probably thought of this one first: shipping peanuts, blocks or, the most annoying, polystyrene that’s been chunked up so it’s like snow. Ugh. There are SO many better options!

  • First, decide if you really need any padding. If you’re giving clothing this year, just wrap up your gift and put it in the box as is. It won’t get hurt.
  • If items sliding around in the box are a concern, choose a box that’s small enough to prevent that and/or pack it with enough items to prevent sliding. (Your intended recipient will like that option!) Alternatively, you could stuff the box with wadded up newspaper pages or shredded paper out of your home office shredder (another item many municipalities won’t accept for recycling).
  • For the truly breakable, wrap the item in soft, discarded clothing and then pack around it with more cut-up scraps of old clothing. Popcorn (air-popped without oil) and even wood shavings (unused, it should go without saying!) can be composted by the recipient. As long as the box is slightly overpacked, so the cushioning material will compress around the item, it’ll be fine.
Old clothes

Retired clothes ready for donation, crafting, new life as packing material, etc.

Okay, Adventurers, there’s one more “Stuff Season” post left, which will probably come on New Year’s Day! What do you want to hear about next for the #TOAWasteChallenge? More strategies for dealing with specific items? Making your own products? Garbage vs. resource? Something else? Let me know in the comments below. Please share this post so more Adventurers can chime in with what they want to hear about. Also, share your waste-reduction strategies in the comments and on the socials!

New to TOA? If some fine friend has forwarded this to you, scroll back up to the “Get 10 Tips for Green Living!” box, enter your email address, and I’ll send you The Organic Adventurer’s “Top 10 Ways to Lead a Healthier, Greener Life” right away. You’ll also have access to great information on how to live your best “green” life that will be delivered straight to your inbox on a regular basis. How convenient, right?!

Have a happy holiday everyone, and cheers to 2018!

P.S. The old folks used to have a name for random pieces of cutlery, and it’s killing me that I can’t remember it. I feel like it had something to do with chickens, but I’ve looked and looked and can’t find it. If anyone knows, I will personally award you etymology karma points!!

Mismatched cutlery


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2 thoughts on “#TOAWasteChallenge Part 3: Reduce packaging waste and Styrofoam use

  • Dawn Hutchins

    I’m still wondering why it’s not completely banned. I noticed that packages from Amazon or Walmart now use the plastic air pillows. I’m assuming those can be deflated and recycled at Publix? I like your idea about using popcorn for packing! Last New Years I gave up plastic bags, straws and water bottles. I also started telling the dentist I don’t want the plastic toothbrush, I purchase wood ones, and started making my own toothpaste and deodorant. Though I wasn’t perfect (many times I got a straw whether I wanted it or not, and one lady at Walmart took my item out and threw the plastic bag away when I said I didn’t want a bag – even after I said go ahead and give it to me and I’ll just recycle it.) I did the best I could. This year I’ll be adding polystyrene for sure. Another question I have is about makeup. I don’t wear a lot but I do like to have mascara and lipstick and both typically come in plastic tubes. What might be an alternative for that?

    • The Organic Adventurer Post author

      You’re doing a great job! Don’t feel bad…the other night at a restaurant, I specifically asked for “no straw” and my drink came with a straw, already unwrapped 🙁 But hopefully, if ALL of us Adventurers keep asking for “no straw” and “no bag,” then it will become just as automatic to ask if the customer wants/needs one as it is to just hand them out regardless! Lol, I’ve been refusing the “goodie bag” at the dentist for years now, and they still ask me every time. “Not even the dental floss? Really?” But back to PS…it really should be banned, and some cities have done just that, but it needs to be a national thing. Until then, once again, it’s up to us! I’m going to count your last question as a vote for the last post being about sustainable makeup or make-your-own stuff because there are, indeed, some options. Thanks for reading and commenting, Dawn! Always good to “see” you here. 🙂