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The Brief, Confusing History of Foam Packaging

What you think is Styrofoam probably isn’t.

This is not styrofoam.
This is not styrofoam. Björn Láczay/CC BY-SA 2.0

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

In the age of instant takeout, there may be no greater scourge than polystyrene, a necessary evil of many a food delivery.

New York City, famously, tried to ban the foamy substance before a judge struck down the ban. And lots of other cities have tried to follow suit—most aggressively San Francisco, and most recently Bangor, Maine. Heck, the entire state of Maryland is considering a big ban.

We know that polystyrene is bad for the environment, that it’s frequently mistaken for Styrofoam, and that it’s kind of a crappy way of shipping food to people.

Even so, polystyrene’s existence—and persistence—dates back decades, and was inextricably linked to Styrofoam when, in 1941, an engineer at Dow Chemical named Ray McIntire combined polystyrene and isobutylene in an attempt to create a rubber-like substance. The discovery was anything but rubbery, but proved useful anyway, immediately getting used during the war as material for life vests and similar flotation devices.

Dow also gave it a name: Styrofoam, which, soon enough, also became a victim of its own success, after the public began incorrectly calling a lot of things non-Styrofoam things, at Xerox-like levels.

And, even now, that still sticks in the craw of Dow, which has trademarked the name for more than 60 years.

In a 2013 Washington Post article, for example, Dow’s business director for building solutions in the Americas, Tim Lacey, sounded like he was at the end of his foam-laced rope.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that it’s used properly,” Lacey explained. “We don’t really know why everyone wants to land on the name Styrofoam, and why it serves as something people want to misuse.”

That’s because, when you’re using the vast majority of cups, plates, and other things you might think of as Styrofoam, what you’re actually using is something called expanded polystyrene, as opposed to real Styrofoam, which is extruded polystyrene. And as Dow Chemical and Owens Corning, the two primary manufacturers of extruded polystyrene, will tell you, it’s not a small or modest difference.

In a lot of ways, the process used to make a cup, versus building insulation (the primary modern use of extruded polystyrene) is the difference between a million pieces of foam and a solid brick. The coffee cup you grabbed from the Shell station? That’s built using a molding process, in which relatively malleable balls of polymer are pressed into a specific shape after those polymers have been filled with gas. (Larger balls might be used for coffee cups, smaller ones for foam trays.) We call this form expanded polystyrene.

As a result, there’s a lot of air in there, which makes the cup lightweight and flexible, while still gaining the insulation advantages that come with foam.

The problem is, there are cases where you can live with a little more weight and a little less flexibility, because you want the resulting material to be a lot stronger. That’s where the extrusion process of pushing an object through a tube comes into play.

A good way to explain this is to consider to the way cheese curls are made, because those also use an extrusion process, except with flakes of corn instead of polymers of styrene oil. But there are some differences, however: You want air in your cheesy poofs, so you pop them straight out after they’re ready to puff up.

But let’s say you want to extrude something that was more crisp, closer to a tortilla chip than a Cheeto. You’d have to figure out a way to more tightly control how the extrusion process manages air to achieve more concentrated results. With Styrofoam, the extrusion process is managed in this way, designed to minimize the amount of air that gets through the material, so as to make the material very tough.

The result of this is that the material you get with extruders is designed for longer-term uses, like in houses. This clip from Owens Corning does a good job explaining why extrusion is desirable in the case of building materials: Simply, it’s tougher, because there’s less air than you’d find in expanded polystyrene. And because there’s less air, it’s very difficult for water to seep in through such material.

All of which makes it great for building materials, which are meant to hold up for decades or longer. Single serving food? It only has to hold up as long as your delivery driver takes to get the Ethiopian food delivered to your door without the driver getting tsebhi birsen all over their vehicle.

The problem is, of course, it lasts a lot longer than that.


 

Expanded polystyrene wasn’t always ubiquitous as it is today, though it may have started with a Michigan company called Dart Manufacturing, which first came upon its most famous use: for packaging. In 1960, the company began selling its (soon-to-be famed) foam cups using the expanded polystyrene process. The company later changed its name to the Dart Container Corporation and took over the food-packaging industry.

Environmental complaints about the packaging came about not long after its use exploded. McDonald’s, for example, was an early target of such complaints, particularly due to the McDLT, a burger that used polystyrene to separate the veggies from the meat and gave Jason Alexander an early acting gig. The chain, facing pressure from the Environmental Defense Fund, gave up the foam packaging in the early ‘90s.

And an early adopter of foam bans came, also in the ’80s, in Berkeley, California, which then banned both foam cups and foam food containers. “Berkeley alone doing this is not that significant,“ noted Berkeley City Councilwoman Nancy Skinner, “but if we do it and it causes other cities to do it, and causes companies to change things, that’s significant.”

(Not all companies went with foam, even in its heyday: Starbucks, for one, opted for paper cups because its cup supplier, Solo, only made the domed lids designed to protect froth for its paper cups, according to Bon Appétit.)

Still, though, there are places where polystyrene simply does the job better than anything else—like for shipping meats through delivery services like UPS.

In a 1985 issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, associate editor Dan Moreau, who was tasked with reviewing a wide variety of mail-order foods, noted that his Omaha Steaks weren’t any worse for wear despite the long gestation process. “The steaks and flounder came in a two-inch-thick foam plastic carton with dry ice and were still frozen rock hard even though they were shipped through regular UPS service and took several days to arrive,” Moreau noted. You should buy it for the packaging, obviously.

The thing with polystyrene is that, even with all the environmental costs that come with it—one 2007 protest in New York City, led by an up-and-coming city councilman named Bill de Blasio, pointed out that the city’s schools were at that point throwing away 4 million polystyrene trays per week—is a massive business, and one that companies like Dart Container Corporation want to do everything they can to protect.

(Dart has been setting up recycling centers all over the country for this reason, which should offer hints about exactly how big its business is.)

Expanded polystyrene in particular is horribly expensive to recycle, in part because of the very benefits that make it so attractive in the first place—because the material is 95 percent air, it’s incredibly bulky, and converting it back to its original form is challenging. Essentially, you’re trying to put a genie back into a bottle.

One attempt that’s been gaining attention in the Canadian market is a service called Polystyvert, which solves the problem of recycling polystyrene by putting a machine that recycles the plastic on the premises of a firm that uses a lot of polystyrene—solving the problem of transporting it. The machine then dissolves the material using essential oils, and separates out the polystyrene so it can be used again for packaging.

It’s still a relatively new concept, but the Montreal-based business has already raised a significant amount of funding.

There’s a lot of polystyrene out there—just think of how many people order Grubhub on a given night, and in towns where a foam packaging ban isn’t even on the radar. It’s daunting, but efforts like Polystyvert could someday make a big dent.

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.