The National Research Council has affirmed that styrene, often used in food packaging and foam coffee cups, is linked to cancer. What’s the industry’s reaction?
After the NTP’s report that organic compound styrene can “reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen”, Dunkin Donuts said they will phase out their polystyrene cups in two or three years.
Polystyrene foam packaging has been a topic of environmental debate for decades, and several international brands have made moves to phase it out.
This slow trend may have been accelerated last month when the National Research Council (NRC) affirmed the National Toxicology Programme’s 2011 finding that the organic compound styrene can “reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
In terms of consumer hazards, the biggest styrene concern is with food packaging, as studies have shown that this substance can leech out of polystyrene take-out food and drink containers, says Mike Schade of Safer Chemicals.
“If you drink coffee or soup or eat Chinese food from a polystyrene foam container you can potentially be exposed to this chemical, which government agencies consider reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Schade says that this latest listing of styrene means we are likely to see more cities and states ban, restrict and regulate polystyrene food packaging.
“In New York City, there have been proposals to ban polystyrene food packaging that were proposed when Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in office.” Based on that, Schade says, it’s very likely that companies will voluntarily begin to phase out the packaging nationwide.
While the NRC’s decision gives the science more leverage, campaigns and petitions against food and drink retailers that use the material have been waged for years.
In the 1980s, public awareness of waste was growing, with polystyrene food containers being a major target.
In 1990, McDonald’s switched from polystyrene foam “clamshells” to paper-based wraps for its sandwich packaging.
In 2012, in the wake of the National Toxicology Programme’s report, Jamba Juice made a public commitment to stop using polystyrene foam cups after more than 130 000 people signed a petition calling for action.
Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand, continues to use its trademark polystyrene cup in the US.
However, it has made a pledge to replace its cup within two to three years. Commenting on the NRC’s recent announcement, Christine Riley Miller, senior director of corporate social responsibility at Dunkin’ Brands says:
We remain committed to finding a long-term alternative to Dunkin’ Donuts foam cup that meets our guests’ expectations, is affordable for our franchisees and reduces our environmental impacts.
The company maintains it “continues to examine every commercially available cup and material” in the US as they become available.
Another sector that has taken note has been the PC industry. Dell in particular has been a front runner in moving to emerging environmentally-friendly alternatives.
Dell has replaced much of its polystyrene packaging — which it uses to protect products when dispatched — with some innovative alternatives. John Miller, vice president of sales operations, Dell EMEA and lead of the company’s sustainability Employee Resource Group, Planet, says “over the last five years, we’ve really looked closely at how we can use polystyrene foam alternatives in our packaging”.
Following the introduction of its bamboo packaging in 2009, Dell became the first company to use mushroom biotechnology to grow protective cushions needed for the shipment of high-tech products, instead of using petroleum-based materials.
“Mushroom packaging is a great material as it’s based on common agricultural waste products such as cotton and rice hulls, which are placed in molds and injected with mushroom spores,” says Miller.
The material takes between five to ten days to grow, and uses energy taken from the waste products rather than external energy sources.
Eben Bayer, Ecovative’s CEO and co-founder, producer of Mushroom Packaging, who worked with Dell on its packaging solutions, says: “Styrene is a wonderful monomer that has many good uses. We think the NRC’s decision further affirms our view that there are good uses and not so good uses of styrene.
Disposable packaging, which exposes this molecule to our natural environment, is not a good use of this chemical. We hope this decision will encourage more companies to make the switch to safer, healthier alternatives.”
Big brands may have the finances to make these moves to alternatives, but what does this mean for the manufacturers of polystyrene food packaging?
One US company, Dart Containers, a polystyrene food and drink containers manufacturer, says it has not experienced any impact on its operations recently or in the past since coverage of the issue surfaced.
However, Jim Lammers, executive vice president of administration at Dart, says that if a major brand like Dunkin’ Donuts were to remove the use of polystyrene foam cups it would certainly have an impact on the company’s current suppliers. Though he was skeptical that Dunkin’s shift from polystyrene would be representative.
“Experience suggests to me though that this would not have a broader impact on the industry,” he said.
And like Lammers, chemical industry associations are adamant that polystyrene foam food packaging is safe. Scott Lusk, director of product communications at the American Chemistry Council (ACC) says: “In light of the recent National Academy of Sciences review of styrene, it is important to point out that federal regulators have not changed their view that polystyrene is safe for food service packaging.
The US Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with scientific review and approval of food contact applications, has determined for more than 50 years that polystyrene is safe for use in food service products.”
Also arguing polystyrene’s case has been the Styrene Information & Research Centre (SIRC), which says that the styrene industry has invested more than $25 million to advance scientific research on the substance. It maintains that the research in progress will “expand on the data considered in the NRC report, and provide more robust information for future styrene hazard and risk assessments.”
Joel Tickner, programme director for the Department of Community Health and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts, says that pro-styrene campaigns from the chemical industry are delaying much needed restriction on hazardous substances.
“What is frustrating about this whole process,” Tickner says, “Is that there has been little controversy in the scientific community about styrene’s carcinogenicity but the chemical industry and politicians who support the industry have used “re-evaluations by the academy” as a sort of stalling technique”.
He advocates an approach focused on alternatives to chemicals of concern.
Liz Harriman, Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute says that her organization has advocated that companies reduce their dependence on styrene but to little response.
“In the interest of protecting workers and the public, we have always encouraged companies in Massachusetts to assume that styrene monomer is a carcinogen, even in the face of industry and political challenges to the NTP decision.”
In 2012, the most recent year data is available, companies in Massachusetts used 235 million pounds of styrene monomer.
Since companies are proving slow to change, Tickner says, it will take consumers becoming concerned enough to advocate for safer alternatives.
“Dunkin Donuts has been adamant that styrene is safe and I cannot imagine them switching any time soon unless there is strong, concerted consumer pressure, which I don’t think there will be for some time.” — The Guardian.