3 Ways to Avoid Carcinogenic Styrofoam

styrofoam cup on park benchI’ve been thinking more and more about the Styrofoam my family consumes—to-go containers, coffee cups, lidded foam “kid cups.”

I’m trying to reduce our consumption when we’re out by requesting drinks in paper instead of foam, ordering better so we leave less leftovers and asking that the kids be served in glass cups along with the rest of the family.

Frankly, styrene—also known as polystyrene, and better known as Styrofoam—terrifies me. It takes 500+ years to degrade, dissolves into tiny bits that end up in the ocean, is rarely recyclable, and last year it was assessed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the government.

Styrofoam takes 500+ years to degrade. Now, thanks to a government assessment, we also know it’s probably carcinogenic. Luckily, avoiding it is easy!

It’s horrible stuff.

In 2012, Scientists from UC, Davis, among others, called for reclassification of PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate as “hazardous” because they’re hard to recycle and most toxic when degrading.

Around the same time, a petition asking Delta to phase out polystyrene garnered more than 7,000 signatures.

And if you think signing petitions is like spitting in the wind, consider the fact that  because of a similar petition McDonalds—McDonalds!!—is beginning to phase out Styrofoam for more eco-friendly paper.

In fact, consumer opinion was behind California’s decision to ban Styrofoam takeout containers, beginning in 2014.

That is exactly the kind of muscle this movement needs, and bodes well for the future. Because if we can ban Styrofoam in California why not take it nationwide?

Meanwhile, what can you do?

  1. Don’t buy Styrofoam. Ever. With so many better disposable options out there—including cups made from plant based plastic that biodegrade—why would you?
  2. Bring your own cups to restaurants that serve drinks in foam.
  3. If your favorite takeout still serves in the stuff, bring your own container for them to fill, and explain why you refuse to bring home your food in a poisonous container. Hopefully they’ll get the message.

Photo: New York Magazine’s interesting piece on paper cups, which pretty much suck too.



  1. Taunja Beck says

    I grew up near Dart Container, a huge manufacturer of styrofoam cups and containers. The amount of deaths from brain cancer in the residents who live within a mile radius of the manufacturing plant is staggering. I have also heard that many employees have cancer. Does anyone know of a way to have this place shut down ?

    Thank you,
    Taunja Beck

  2. Great to see that McDonalds use paper boxes now instead of the deadly styro containers. Even some other restaurants in our area are embracing the idea of using it for to go orders.

    My husband and I also bring our own bottles and glasses and containers when we go out. We just don’t mind the weird look they’re giving us when we hand out our containers when we ask them to use it for our leftovers. 🙂

    • Rachel Sarnoff says

      Good for you!! That’s awesome, and inspiring to others there as well. They may have given you weird looks but you made them think, right? 🙂 🙂

  3. Ugh, I hate the stuff. Sets my teeth on edge. And my daughter with autism loves to CHEW IT, ew. So never ever do I buy it. Now I can figure out a way that green and clean companies can mail me products without using styrofoam noodles, I’d be a happy gal!

  4. Any tips for asking a regional, family-run business to stop using styrofoam? They make the best tamales around but it hurts my heart to order take-out! Does switching products affect a business’ bottom line?

    • Rachel Sarnoff says

      Oh I totally know how you feel! What about bringing a container to them to fill?

      • Lincoln wray says

        Today I went to two Resturant to order take out in my container in miami & both refused. First Resturant just said they would not, the second said personal containers are not allowed behind the counter. It was obvious they didn’t want a sale.

  5. I have to say that for the most part, we don’t use a lot of Styrofoam. The one BIG however – our school lunches are served on Styrofoam trays. We are trying to change this, but it is very difficult. Because of this, and other reasons, my children don’t buy lunch often.

    • Rachel Sarnoff says

      That’s exactly the kind of change I’m talking about!! You can’t always avoid the lunch tray, but you and your kids are making a conscious effort not to. Thanks for commenting Kristina!

  6. Love this post, I’ll share on social media. Styrofoam is the worst, it makes me sad to see how many fast food chains still use it for take out. I think it’s hard since it’s soooo cheap. For small mom and pop places it’s cheaper. But as we’ve seen with the plastic bag bans, many small shop owners adapt. It’s tough when price is an issue, but what about the cost to our health and environment? It’s harder to think about big picture costs, but is certainly something I think about! Question, have you seen any good info on styrene leaching from styrofoam (re hot liquids?) Great post!

    • Rachel Sarnoff says

      Yes, I agree–especially small biz owners who may not be operating in a place where people are conscious of styro’s effects. I feel like I did see a study on leaching but I have not found. Will share if I do. Thanks Lindsay!!


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